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Centrists: Veiled In Secrecy, Eager For Attention

Americans Elect, the group that is pushing to get a bipartisan, "radical centrist" third-choice ticket on the presidential ballot next fall via an online convention, just held a call with reporters to trumpet that it has obtained ballot access in California, with 1.62 million signatures. This puts the group well on its way to getting access in all 50 states, which, its leaders declared, means the political world better start taking it seriously.

"This is a significant step in the journey," said Elliot Ackerman, the group's chief operating officer and the son of Peter Ackerman, the leveraged-buyout titan who founded the organization*. "The idea that this can't be done -- if you look at the data, it's false."

But even as Americans Elect is asking that the punditocracy look its way, it is also keeping anyone from looking too closely. In response to questions from Politico's Ken Vogel and yours truly, the group's leaders said over and over that they had no intention of releasing the names of all 50 of the major donors who gave at least $100,000 each to the group, providing the bulk of the $30 million it needed to obtain the ballot access. The group's 501c(4) status does not require it to disclose its donors, they noted. There is no risk of a quid pro quo, they said, between the donors and candidates because the donors are only paying for the creation of a new nominating process, not supporting specific candidates. And while some donors have come forward, they said, many others gave only on the condition that they would not be identified because they feared being vilified for giving to Americans Elect.

"These individuals are prominent in public life, folks who are deeply concerned about the state of American politics and the dysfunction playing out right now," said Elliot Ackerman, who served five tours in Afghanistan and Iraq with the Marine Corps. "The effort couldn't have been started if those people weren't able to come out in their own due time."

Well, Vogel asked, if the donors are so worried about retribution, why should we expect them to ever self-disclose? "Because we'll elect a president," said Darry Sragow, a "senior advisor" to the group, "and they'll be proud of what they did and they'll reveal their names." In other words, don't expect to know who was behind this effort until its work is done.

The group's leaders also said they had tweaked the nominating rules in a way that addresses a criticism from Barack Obama's reelection team, that the group's candidate screening committee would keep the process from being as grass-roots as it claims. ("Uber-democracy meets backroom bosses," was how David Axelrod described it.) Under the revised rules, there will still be two separate tracks for people to put themselves forward: one for those who hold or held major elected office in the past or are the heads of big corporations, nonprofits or labor unions, who will be deemed automatically eligible to run; and another for people who do not meed this threshold and will have to obtain signatures backing their candidacy. Under the initial rules, though, people in this second group needed at least 10,000 signatures in 10 different states; under the new rules, the total signature requirement has been cut to 50,000, and the candidates have more time to obtain them.

The group calls the requirement for this second group its "Lady Gaga rule" -- a way to ensure that there are at least some hurdles in place for an oddball celebrity candidate to clear. But this rule only reaches so far: one reporter asked whether Donald Trump would automatically qualify without the signatures, and the group's leaders conceded that yes, he probably would, as the head of a major corporation.

So think on it, The Donald. There's a ballot line waiting for you, paid for by rich people other than yourself, identities unknown.

*Post was edited slightly to remove a reference to Peter Ackerman as a billionaire, which Americans Elect says he is not.