It's easier to sign up as a candidate for president than it is to apply for a job at McDonald's.
Just ask Andre Barnett or Ken Grammer or Samm Tittle. They're among the 259 Americans who have filed as 2012 presidential candidates, a collection of hopefuls that mixes Average Joes with the likes of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
All it takes to get on the list is a one-page "Statement of Candidacy" filed with the Federal Election Commission, asking far fewer questions than a McDonald's job application.
"It's the great thing about American politics," says Bob Biersack, a former FEC official. "If you want to run for president, the barriers to, in some formal sense, doing it are not very high."
But FEC Form 2, Statement of Candidacy, won't take a would-be president very far: It doesn't put anyone on the ballot anywhere. That requires filing more paperwork with the individual states.
Also, the vast majority of people who file the federal statement "never do anything else" to pursue the presidency, says Richard Winger, editor and publisher of Ballot Access News. He finds it aggravating when they're taken too seriously.
In 2008, for example, 365 people registered with the FEC as presidential candidates. But there were just 42 on the primary ballots in New Hampshire. In the general election, 24 candidates appeared on the ballot in at least one state.
This year's crop of self-declared candidates includes a healthy swath of Americans disaffected with government and the country's two-party political system, plus an assortment of oddballs.
Mike Ballantine, a Green Party candidate who's moving back to Pennsylvania after years of self-imposed exile in Vietnam, says he decided to run after his dissatisfaction with the government grew over the past three years.
"The final straw seemed to come when we began attacking Libya," he said via email. "For me it became a matter of `put up' or `shut up.'"
So Ballantine says he spends about 12 hours a day trying to harness the power of the Internet to build support and overcome the huge fundraising advantage of the top tier candidates.
"Whatever happens, it will have been a great experience, and win or lose, my team and I believe we have changed the dialogue for the better," he says.
Ken Grammer, an independent from Danville, Va., who runs a sports management business, says he got into the race because he was frustrated by the gridlock in Washington and the apathy of "career millionaire politicians" toward the concerns of middle- and lower-income people. But Grammer folded his campaign last month because of all the hurdles he confronted.
"There is no mechanism to be heard," he said. "You can't get into debates. So getting taken seriously is very difficult, if not impossible."
In a post titled "Reality Bites," Grammer wrote on his blog: "It's sad. I still believe we need a fresh perspective in our next president."
Shelia "Samm" Tittle, a Republican businesswoman from Fredericksburg, Va., says she's running to "speak up for the average citizen on the street: the barber, the beautician, the store clerk" and more. "Politics is the only profession where the more experience one has, the worse he or she becomes," Tittle said at a news conference last week in Jackson, Miss.
Other candidates' have left more puzzling clues about themselves.
There's a candidate from Malibu, Calif., who lists his name as HRM Caesar Saint Augustine de Buonaparte Emperor of the United States of Turtle Island. His statement of candidacy is decorated with photos and symbols stretching back to the Trojan War.
Forms filed by brother-and-sister candidates from South Lake Tahoe, Calif., include notes in the margins that "the world's largest terrorist organization" is plotting their assassination.
Candidates are required to file a statement of candidacy with the FEC if they raise or spend $5,000 on their campaign.
Most never come close to reaching that threshold.
For example Andre Barnett, an independent from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., who's been in the race since May, reported this month that he's raised $20. Republican Fred Karger, a Californian who's running as the first openly gay presidential candidate, leads the pack of also-rans in fundraising with more than $356,000.
AP writer Jack Gillum in Washington contributed to this report.
List of candidates: http://tinyurl.com/6k4jdnr
Obama's statement of candidacy: http://tinyurl.com/6hpvax6
Nancy Benac can be followed at http://twitter.com/nbenac