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Group promoting third-party candidates faces rebellion

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Americans Elect – the innovative effort to jolt the political system with a third-party presidential candidate – is facing a democratic uprising of its own.

A hastily organized contingent of Americans Elect activists is agitating to reverse the group's decision last week to pull the plug on its nomination process after failing to generate sufficient interest in its candidates. Complaining that the group’s leadership hasn't listened to the membership, the insurgents are pushing for Americans Elect to forge ahead. They don't want the $35 million the group raised to get on the ballot in 29 states, including California, to go to waste.

Involved in the effort is a Bay Area activist and filmmaker who ran for the Americans Elect nomination and came in third place, after former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer and former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson. Michealene Risley, a resident of Woodside in San Mateo County, said she was shocked when she heard – via press release – that Americans Elect was shutting down the nomination process.

"People feel really used and manipulated," said Risley, who ran on a platform of campaign finance reform.

"Without a viable candidate added to the national stage in this election, the brand name of AE will be tarnished," Risley wrote to the group's board. "Instead of being the prototype for high tech democracy, it will be stigmatized as the latest example of third party failure."

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Americans Elect had bulldozed through the tremendous hurdles alternative parties face in getting on ballots, gathering more than a million signatures to become the first new official party in California since 1995. But in its announcement last week, Americans Elect explained that its rules mandated an end to the process because no candidate achieved the "national support threshold" necessary to enter its online convention in June.

Roemer, for example, needed 10,000 supporters among those who registered as Americans Elect delegates online, but he came up with only 6,293. Risley and Anderson needed to collect 50,000 supporters – more than Roemer because they didn't have high-level political experience.

Anderson decried the higher requirements as "discriminatory" and said he would have redoubled his efforts to qualify if he had a lower bar.

"We were extremely frustrated that they had set the bar at an impossible level for those that they apparently consider second-class candidates," Anderson said.

Anderson, who is also running as a Justice Party candidate, endorsed the Americans Elect mutiny and would like to see the top six candidates move on to the next stage in the nomination process.

"I think that the more choices voters can have, the healthier it is for democracy," he said.

Andrew Evans, an Americans Elect delegate from North Carolina, is rallying support to resuscitate the process under the banner "Americans of Americans Elect." While maintaining that "it's not a revolt," Evans and his cohorts are trying to activate a provision of Americans Elect's rules that would give delegates a chance to reverse a board decision.

"We feel we really didn’t get the proper say in the decision that the board made," said Evans, who also leads the Modern Whig Party. "It’s extremely frustrating because we feel that our voices were not heard."

Americans Elect's CEO, Kahlil Byrd, said in an e-mail to California Watch: "We honor and appreciate all delegates. They are part of a growing national community hungry for real change in our political system."

David King, a member of Americans Elect's advisory board and a lecturer at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, said the group made the right decision.

"I think the rules were well understood from the beginning, and Americans Elect didn’t have candidates that seized the opportunity, so it doesn’t seem right to change the rules this late in the game," King said. "A wonderful stadium was built, but not enough players got on the field. The next time there’s a major-league season, we’ll see what happens."

Americans Elect always faced long odds in its quest to field a viable, centrist presidential candidate who would shake things up. The group also drew criticism for not disclosing the donors who bankrolled the effort. In a previous story, California Watch found that one of the main funders, board Chairman Peter Ackerman, once had to pay millions of dollars in delinquent taxes and penalties for an alleged tax shelter scheme.

"They haven't been the most transparent group from the outset," Anderson said. "Nobody really knows how the rules were set from the beginning or how Americans Elect has been financed."

Even Americans Elect die-hards had their share of gripes. One of the main complaints was that prospective voters had a hard time registering as delegates through the website.

Risley said the Americans Elect model gave her "hope for the first time in a long time." But as she held campaign gatherings at her home and reached out to like-minded activists at Occupy protests, she became frustrated with the group's online system. Some supporters couldn't get through the site's intensive verification of whether they were registered voters or didn't want to provide the last four digits of their Social Security numbers, she said.

"Why make it so hard for people?" Risley said.

Ileana Wachtel, Americans Elect's press secretary, said only 300 out of tens of thousands of people had problems with the website that couldn’t be resolved, mostly because of inaccurate voter registration data.

"When dealing with voters most precious franchise, the vote, there cannot be any compromise on the issue of security," she said in an e-mail. “Bottom line, AE's created the first ever secure online nominating process, preparing the pathway that is just the beginning."

Americans Elect still might shake up the political landscape in 2016 or 2020, said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.

"But absent a viable candidate in 2012, it’s difficult to see what the benefits of moving forward quickly rather than gradually would be," Schnur said.

"Instead of being the political version of Facebook, it could end up being the political version of Friendster," he said. "But you wouldn't have gotten Facebook if there wouldn’t have been a Friendster first."

In order to continue, though, Americans Elect must face the challenge of delegate dissent.

Risley said the group's top-down decisionmaking "feels like more of the same" instead of an alternative to the traditional two parties.

Evans said he appreciates the work and money the group's leaders have provided, but said he has lost faith in the way the organization is run. 

"Some of the delegates, they’re fed up with Americans Elect," he said. "They’re like, once bitten, twice shy."

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