Driven by Americans' widespread dissatisfaction with both Democrats and Republicans, Americans Elect is trying to shake up the 2012 election by obtaining ballot access in all 50 states for a yet-to-be-named presidential candidate. The group says it has been ballot certified in 16 states, awaiting confirmation in another 14 and is gathering signatures to be on the ballot in the other 20.
"It's so spoiled right now, it's so dysfunctional. How can we not do something? At some point, we have to do something," says Americans Elect spokeswoman Ileana Wachtel, referring to the current presidential nomination process. "We really have created a mechanism for people to engage productively, actively and with a purpose because without the ballot access you can't run."
The group is lead by Peter Ackerman, the managing director of private investment firm Rockport Capital. Ackerman, who contributed $5 million in seed money to start the group, sits on the Board of the Council on Foreign Relations and was a founding chair of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.
As candidates announce their independent quest for the country's top office, Americans Elect will hold online "qualifying rounds" to reduce their field to six. Those left will then select a vice presidential nominee, though it must be someone from a different political party or ideology. Delegates will be selected from registered voters who enroll online, attending a convention in June in order to vote for their nominee.
"We're taking this directly to the people; we're taking the power really away from the parties so the people are really engaging in the process and nominating candidates they want to see," Wachtel says. "It's really about creating new way to pick a president."
Once a nominee is selected, they would be responsible for raising their own money and running their own campaign.
Wachtel says the movement is seeing a lot of grassroots support - particularly on college campuses - though there are plenty of skeptics about how much of an impact Americans Elect will have in November.
"Party identification is a really powerful influence on people's voting behaviors," says Danny Hayes, a political science professor at American University. "That means any third-party candidate is going to be fighting an uphill battle, regardless of how they came to win their place on the ballot."
Hayes says he understands the public's disapproval with the two major parties, but denies those feelings would translate to success for a third-party candidate.
"People don't like political parties because they are always blamed for gridlock and for the attacks on others, and they seem like these organizations that don't do any good," he says. "But they aggregate the public's interests together and they organize and politick to help pursue those interests. It's a little bit disingenuous to suggest that if we just had a candidate who didn't have a party label that all would be solved."
Andy Smith, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire, points out that third parties have experienced only minor success in American politics, pointing to Ross Perot's 1992 Reform Party effort when he garnered about 19 percent of the popular vote.
"There's really only been one successful third party, and that was the Republican party that came about in the wake and collapse of the old Whig party over the issue of slavery," Smith says. "Good government is not really the kind of an issue that is going to motivate people to drop long-standing ties to the party of their birth, so to speak, and take up with another party that isn't really a party."
Both professors concede that history doesn't ultimately predict Americans Elect will be an afterthought in this year's election.
"In a situation where the two candidates are divided by a razor-thin margin, the presence of any other candidate on the ballot, whether it be Ralph Nader, or Ron Paul, or some unknown third-party candidate might make the difference," Hayes says. "So whether this group is consequential has relatively little to do with the amount of support there might be for a third-party candidate and more to do with the fact that the election might be very close."