A mysteriously funded, highly organized effort to secure the ballot for a third party candidate in this year’s election has ties to President Obama and top Democrats, KleinOnline has learned.
The group, calling itself Americans Elect, or AE, seems designed to appear like a massive, grassroots effort involving millions of citizens acting to draft a third party candidate.
However, the organization’s voting process has been called into question while there are concerns AE’s bylaws may allow the group’s own board members to bypass votes and nominate their own candidate.
AE describes itself as “a non-partisan, non-profit organization founded by Americans from across the political spectrum who are worried that our nation’s deep political divisions keep big problems from being solved.”
AE seeks to hold its own nominating convention on the Internet this June to select an independent presidential and vice-presidential candidate. The group says any registered voter can sign up to participate in the June convention.
AE has reportedly raised more than $22 million so far and has already been certified to be placed on the ballot in 12 states now, including California.
To getting on state ballots, AE evidenced mass organizing skills. The group says it collected over 2 million signatures nationwide in its effort to get on state ballots.
KleinOnline found that two of AE’s board members, Kellen Arno and Michael Arno, were paid by the group for helping to run the massive signature gathering drive via their firm, Arno Political Consultants.
Arno’s firm, APC, has previously reportedly been accused of forging signatures and collecting signatures using fraud.
In 2004, APC was accused of forging signatures on a petition to legalize slot machines in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.
The next year, Boston’s Fox 25 News ran a feature interviewing paid signature collectors hired by APC through subcontractors. The interviewees said they were trained on how to trick people into signing a petition using fraud, including by switching the actual petition text after each signature was collected.
In 2007, APC reportedly hired JSM, Inc. who in turn hired independent contractors who gave snacks and food to homeless people in exchange for signing petitions and registering to vote.
Then 2009, APC gathered signatures to put the Ohio Casino Initiative on the November 3, 2009 ballot, but a subsequent review reportedly found the overall validity of the signatures were certified at just under 51%.
AE, meanwhile, was reportedly originally associated with another group that sought an independent candidate. That organization, calling itself Unity08, eventually suspended operations citing organizing and fundraising issues.
Unity08 said it did not back any particular candidate, but two of its founders launched their own national effort to draft New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to run for president
The Irregular Times documented how AE and Unity 08 shared the same Washington D.C. address. Previously, Unity08 shared its address with the Draft Bloomberg Committee.
Irregular Times also found that the founders of Unity08 “registered the domain name draftmichaelbloomberg.com in 2007 at a time when Unity08 was insisting that it had no candidates in mind.”
AE’s funding has been called into question.
In late 2010, AE changed its tax status from a tax-exempt group to what is known as a 501(c)(4), or social-welfare organization, which is not required to show its donor list.
Capital Weekly reported that prior to the change, in the second and third quarters of 2010, AE’s more than $1.5 million in funding came from one person – venture capitalist, Unity08 activist and Obama donor, Peter Ackerman.
Ackerman reportedly gave AE a total of at least $5 million in seed money. Many of AE’s other donors are unknown.
AE officials have defended their secretive donor collection practices.
“We have to be able to raise significant amounts of money to be able to take on the status quo,” Kahlil Byrd, AE’s chief executive officer, told Mother Jones last November.
Byrd said that if his group were compelled to disclose its donors, there would be “a chilling effect…on people’s willingness to participate in this process.”
Democracy 21 and the Campaign Legal Center, two campaign finance watchdogs, requested in September the IRS investigate Americans Elect’s charging they may be violating nonprofit status by function like a political party.
Finances are not the only source of controversy.
Mother Jones reported that AE’s Internet voting system has been called into question.
Pamela Smith, president of VerifiedVoting.org, a voters’ advocacy group, argued AE’s reliance on Internet voting is insecure and difficult to audit.
“If you allow it to be used in public elections without assurance that the results are verifiably accurate, that is an extraordinary and unnecessary risk to democracy,” she says.
Regardless of the results, there are concerns that current guidelines reportedly allow AE to anoint its own candidate.
Salon.com reporter Justin Elliott noted candidates chosen by voters must be approved by a Candidate Certification Committee, which according to the group’s bylaws consist of AE’s board members.
The Committee, according to the bylaws obtained by Salon, will need to certify a “balanced ticket obligation” consisting og candidates who are “responsive to the vast majority of citizens while remaining independent of special interests and the partisan interests of either major political party.”
In response, AE official Darry Sragow told Salon’s Elliot that his group’s guidelines are subject to change.
Sragow went on to defend AE’s board, even likening them to the Founding Fathers.
“While we don’t mean to put the board in the company of the Founding Fathers, we’d point out that nobody picked the Founding Fathers, either,” Sragow stated.
“They took it upon themselves to turn a popular dream into a shared reality. And they, too, had debates over how much control should be centralized. They knew that too much power in the hands of too few isn’t real democracy, but that power too diffuse is anarchy.”
KleinOnline reviewed AE’s board, finding multiple ties to Obama while some Republicans also graced the committee.
Besides Ackerman, an Obama donor who gave money to help start AE, the advisory board includes Lawrence Lessig, an Obama technology adviser.
Lessig has been mentioned as a future candidate to head the Federal Communications Commission, the FCC. He is an activist for reduced legal restrictions on copyright material and advised Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.
AE’s CEO, Kahlil Byrd, has drawn scrutiny from conservatives because he formerly served as Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick’s Communications Director. Patrick’s chief strategist was top Obama strategist David Axelrod.
AE board member W. Bowman Cutter is senior adviser to the Podesta Group lobbying and public relations firm, which was founded by John Podesta, who directed Obama’s transition into the White House in 2008.
Podesta is director of the Center for American Progress, which is reportedly highly influential in helping to craft White House policy.
A Time magazine article profiled the influence of Podesta’s Center for American Progress in the formation of the Obama administration, stating that “not since the Heritage Foundation helped guide Ronald Reagan’s transition in 1981 has a single outside group held so much sway.”
Meanwhile, AE’s board also includes former John McCain aide Mark McKinnon, Will Marshall of the Progressive Policy Institute, former New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman, Larry Diamond of the Hoover Institute, and former Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair.
AE also has ties to Hillary Clinton supporters.
Lynn Forester de Rothschild, who is a prominent Hillary Clinton backer, is on the board, as is Doug Schoen, a former pollster and adviser to Bill Clinton.
Schoen was recently in the news after he teamed up with Jimmy Carter’s former aid Patrick to publish an editorial in the Wall Street Journal last month, entitled “The Hillary Moment,” in which they called for Clinton to throw her hat into the ring for the presidency.
The two wrote another piece at Politico.com calling for Democratic voters nationally — particularly in New Hampshire — to organize a write-in campaign for Clinton.
With research by Brenda J. Elliott