Americans Elect leaders Eliot Ackerman and Mark McKinnon on 21 Feb 2012
One of the most salient criticisms of Americans Elect —
a group that bills itself as seeking to "open up the political process" and "change politics as usual" — is
its dogged refusal, using the legal shield of its status
as a 501c4 corporation, to disclose the names of its financial backers.
This matters, in part, because Americans Elect got
off the ground with $20 million of seed money given by only 50-some anonymous donors. That's 50 nameless investors ponying up an average of $400,000 apiece, although, in one rare case in which the name is known, Americans Elect founder and CEO Peter Ackerman
has given at least $1.55 million and, according to Bloomberg — the news organization, not the draft Americans Elect presidential candidate — more
than $5 million.
(Sidebar: How is it that Lawrence Lessig, one of the most informed and eloquent critics of the undue influence of money over politics — and one of the most ardent and public advocates for financial transparency from elected officials, corporations and political institutions — winds up on the Board of Advisors, a.k.a. the Leadership, of a political group with such a shadowy financial pedigree?)
Americans Elect has sought to rationalize its financial secrecy, by assuring the public that all of its early high-dollar contributions are structured as loans that will be repaid, and that, when all is said and done, no single donor will have contributed more than $10,000.
- On its Web site — slide number 8, under "What
are people asking?" — Americans Elect says it
"is funded by individual contributions, and intends to pay back the bulk of our initial financing as more delegates join, so that no single individual will have contributed more than $10K."
- Underscoring the point, Americans Elect last October published an open letter, signed by Americans Elect CEO Kahlil Byrd, saying that "every donation above $10,000 is structured as
a loan. We aspire for these loans to be paid back by the time this organization completes its core mission in 2012. If the American people embrace the Americans Elect mission as their own, then no one will have given more than $10,000. Growing evidence suggests that this will happen."
- And, just last week (video above), Americans
Elect COO Eliot Ackerman, appearing with Americans Elect Advisory Board member Mark McKinnon on MSNBC, told Chuck Todd — who
had asked Ackerman (starting at 6:14) when
and if Americans Elect was going to disclose its funders — that "all of [the funders'] donations have been given as loans."
The theory — or, depending on one's point of view,
the line — has been that, eventually, grassroots financial support of Americans Elect will kick in. The Republican nomination will be settled in February. A new wave
of disillusioned Republicans will join disillusioned Democrats and independents looking to Americans
Elect for an answer. High-profile "centrists" will declare their intention to run for the Americans Elect nomination. And, as an index of enthusiasm for this new alternative, "ordinary citizens" will flock to the Americans Elect Web site and, "Yes We Can"-style, will click through hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of small-dollar donations.
Ultimately, in other words, "the people" will be the ones to reimburse the hedge funders and private-equity types who seeded the initial $20 million. Thus will the role of Americans Elect as a catalyst of democratic renewal be authenticated in financial terms.
And, at the end of the day, as CEO Kahlil Byrd
promised — albeit with caveats attached, as befits
Byrd's training as a political operative — "no one will have given more than $10,000."
That's been the story — and Americans Elect has been sticking to it.
:: :: ::
SO IT WAS jarring to read the following new ruling of the Americans Elect Board of Directors, posted this morning to the Americans Elect Web site:
The Americans Elect Board unanimously voted to ensure that no supporter would cover more than 20% of AE’s budget. In the event that any one supporter exceeds that percentage, there are provisions created to expedite repayments to that supporter.
What this Board decision basically says is that as few
as five people can fund the whole damned thing.
As to the language about the "provisions created
to expedite repayments" to any supporter whose
financial contribution exceeds 20%, well — what "provisions," pray? In fact, the provisions clause
suggests the possibility of a loophole that would enable
a 20% donor to exceed 20% by contributing to one
or more other donors an additional sum — an offset
that would bring the other donor's contribution "up"
or "down," depending on the bookkeeping, but that Americans Elect could spin, in Clintonian fashion, as being not a donation to Americans Elect but a
transaction between private individuals.
This move by the Americans Elect board would seem to put even more pressure on Americans Elect to disclose who its funders are. (Are you listening, Lawrence?)
It also strongly suggests that Americans Elect is not getting — and does not expect to get — significant financial support at the grassroots level of delegates, Web site registrants and Facebook "like"-ers. At least, not significant enough — and not quick enough — to make good on all of the promises that it may have made to all of the seed investors from whom Americans Elect has taken high-dollar loans.
Indeed, the counter-scenario that this new ruling opens up is that it will not be the grassroots, "the people," who repay these seed investors in Americans Elect — but, rather, that wealthy donors who have not yet topped out the new 20% maximum (or maybe even some who have) are being asked to increase their donations by way of reimbursing investors who are having second thoughts.
Are second- and third-tier investors in Americans Elect getting a little nervous? Nervous that, at this late date — March 2012 — Americans Elect still has not caught fire, either among citizens or among potential candidates?