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Americans Elect launches centrist third-party bid amid Washington dysfunction

Americans Elect, which is inviting the public to a virtual primary, faces daunting hurdles. But dissatisfaction with the partisan gridlock in Washington creates a favorable political climate.

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Moreover, Americans Elect will use an appointed "Candidate Certification Committee" to – as Mr. Ackerman said on a recent press call – deal with "candidate qualification and making sure we have candidates who bridge the center of American public opinion." Critics say this means a possible ticket by fiat if its voters pick, for example, Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R), the tea party doyenne and presidential aspirant from Minnesota.

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"Having watched past third-party movements succeed in recruiting millions of supporters and then dash their hopes for democratic renewal on the rocks of stubborn and inflexible leadership, I still hope despite the odds that Americans Elect isn't about to do the same thing," writes Micah Sifry, the co-founder of Personal Democracy Forum, who says he was approached last fall by Americans Elect staffers to help provide digital strategy for the project.

At worst, he adds, Americans Elect "will play an unpredictable role in national and state politics for years to come, all at the behest of a small group of decision-makers who already think they know what's best for the country."

But Americans Elect isn't daunted. County registrars in California began receiving 1.6 million signatures from the group on Thursday as part of a requirement to be included in the 2012 election. Largely under the radar, the group has already gained ballot access in Nevada, Alaska, Kansas and Arizona, is seeking certification in Michigan, Hawaii, Missouri and Florida, and plans to be on the ballots in 18 states by the end of the year.

Count among its early supporters Tom Friedman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist known for his centrist philosophy.

"What did to books, what the blogosphere did to newspapers, what the iPod did to music, what did to pharmacies, Americans Elect plans to do to the two-party duopoly that has dominated American political life ­– remove the barriers to real competition, flatten the incumbents and let the people in," Mr. Friedman wrote recently. "Watch out."

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