Vote Trade: The Democratic Way?
As Ralph Nader's bid for the presidency has gained favor among some liberal voters during recent weeks, supporters of Vice President Al Gore have repeated a single fire-and-brimstone warning about the Green Party candidate: "A vote for Nader is a vote for Bush."
Because of the peculiarities of the electoral college, the Democrats' mantra makes a point. It's conceivable that Nader could drain away enough liberal support from Gore in key states to deliver the White House on a Texas-sized platter to the Lone Star State's Gov. George W. Bush.
So what's a Nader-loving, Bush-bashing voter to do? How can one support Nader, who needs 5 percent of the popular vote to qualify for federal matching funds during the next election, while ensuring a Gore White House?
That's the advice of people who have put up a host of websites encouraging Nader voters and Gore voters to "trade" votes with each other -- allowing Gore to win swing states like Wisconsin, Oregon and Pennsylvania, while letting Nader win votes in Bush-secure states such as Texas.
These sites, which are all less than a week old, go by names like VoteSwap2000, Votexchange2000, and, most memorably, NaderTrader.org.
VoteSwap2000, however, has now shut down; the owners have posted a message saying that they were contacted by the California Secretary of State and told that offering to "broker the exchange of votes" was a violation of California law. The other sites, though, including a new one called WinWin Campaign, are still running.
Each trading site has a slightly different process, but they all work by matching up Gore voters in states that Bush has locked up with Nader voters in states that Gore needs to win. The Nader person agrees to vote for Gore if the other person will vote for Nader -- and it's a winning situation for everyone involved, say the creators of these sites.
Jeff Winchell, an Internet developer in Seattle who has his own Nader Trader site, said that he was inspired by an article in the online magazine Slate, which proposed just such a Gore-Nader voter alliance.
"I quickly put up a simple Web page," Winchell said, "and because I'm a database guy, I added a count in there."
Winchell then came upon VoteSwap2000, and he helped the owners of that site get a trading count as well. This site quickly became the most popular of the trading sites, signing on almost 5,000 traders in less than a week of operation.
Does this mean that Gore could win 5,000 more votes in states where that matters?
Possibly, said Craig Smith, the vice president of Democratic Outreach at Voter.com. But Smith, who is Gore's former campaign manager, said that while the idea might sound like a no-lose proposition for some voters, it's hard to know whether voters who agree to trade will stick to their pledges.
"Both sides have to take a leap of faith -- and are you going to trust your vote to some unknown person, someone you only know over the Internet? I wouldn't with my vote."
But Winchell said that despite this leap of faith, sites like his do allow voters to vote their conscience, and also to get around what Winchell calls an "outdated" voting process.
"The electoral college is a farce," Winchell said. "It only exists for the presidential election -- if it was so wonderful, they would have it for all other votes. They need to get rid of it."
Winchell thinks that sites like his are hastening that process.
Alan Porter, a San Francisco engineer who started Votexchange, said that one of the reasons he started his site was to exploit an anachronistic voting process.
Porter said that he and the others who helped him start Votexchange have "strong feelings about the dilemma we're facing this year. The quality of the candidates is not what we would like to see -- and by voting for the fringe candidate, we might be doing people in the country a disservice."
According to Chris Watney, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, such vote trades are kosher as far as the law is concerned.
"In general, it's a crime to promise voters anything of value if they vote a certain way," she said. "So this system, where no money is exchanged, is OK."
That depends on your philosophical ideas about voting, said Jamin Raskin, a professor of constitutional law at American University.
"Some people think that their vote is an expressive act, that it's immoral ever to veer away from what's in your heart of hearts," he said. "But others believe it's purely a strategic act -- and you should only care about what the final result is going to be."
"There are millions of people who are cheering on Ralph Nader because he's revitalized the progressive agenda, but who also want to stop Bush and would like to see Gore in office," he said.
Despite these millions, though, Raskin thinks that it might be a bit too late in the election cycle for vote trading to catch on quickly enough to make a difference in the race. But he said it's worth noting that other close elections have turned on margins of just a few thousand votes.
An electoral college clearly fit a country with very local political cultures," he said, referring to the early days of the United States. "The Internet has created the idea of a national political culture." But Raskin indicated that the two could fit together nicely.
Voter.com's Smith said that while Internet trading may highlight flaws in the electoral system, every system would have problems.
"If you go to a strict popular vote," he said, "then a candidate could be, say, the governor of California and win the support of that state. He could lose about 40 other states and still win the presidency." And that wouldn't be any more fair, would it?
Smith said that even if Gore could benefit form the Internet vote trading, "the Gore people shouldn't touch this. They shouldn't endorse it." Craig said that a Gore endorsement of trading would weaken the VP's image -- people would ask, "Can't he win without these websites?"
The Nader campaign, too, couldn't be reached for comment, but a campaign spokeswoman told the Associated Press that "some people are encouraging tactical voting, but our campaign is encouraging people in every state to vote for Ralph Nader."
"Governor Bush and the Bush campaign are focussed solely on our positive message and our campaign," he said. "We'll leave it to the disenfranchised liberals and the Gore campaign to worry about their problems."