Updates: Commenter JT informs me that there’s already a vote-swapping site available: MakeMineCount.org. (I particularly like their motto: “Everybody wins. Except Trump.”) I still think there’s a need for more sites, particularly ones that would interface with Facebook, but this is a great beginning. I’ve signed up for it myself.
Also, Toby Ord, a philosopher I know at Oxford, points me to a neat academic paper he wrote that analyzes vote-swapping as an example of “moral trade,” and that mentions the Porter v. Bowen decision holding vote-swapping to be legal in the US.
Also, if we find two Gary Johnson supporters in swing states willing to trade, I’ve been contacted by a fellow Austinite who’d be happy to accept the second trade.
As regular readers might know, my first appearance in the public eye (for a loose definition of “public eye”) had nothing to do with D-Wave, Gödel’s Theorem, the computational complexity of quantum gravity, Australian printer ads, or—god forbid—social justice shaming campaigns. Instead it centered on NaderTrading: the valiant but doomed effort, in the weeks leading up to the 2000 US Presidential election, to stop George W. Bush’s rise to power by encouraging Ralph Nader supporters in swing states (such as Florida) to vote for Al Gore, while pairing themselves off over the Internet with Gore supporters in safe states (such as Texas or California) who would vote for Nader on their behalf. That way, Nader’s vote share (and his chance of reaching 5% of the popular vote, which would’ve qualified him for federal funds in 2004) wouldn’t be jeopardized, but neither would Gore’s chance of winning the election.
Here’s what I thought at the time:
- The election would be razor-close (though I never could’ve guessed how close).
- Bush was a malignant doofus who would be a disaster for the US and the world (though I certainly didn’t know how—recall that, at the time, Bush was running as an isolationist).
- Many Nader supporters, including the ones who I met at Berkeley, prioritized personal virtue so completely over real-world consequences that they might actually throw the election to Bush.
NaderTrading, as proposed by law professor Jamin Raskin and others, seemed like one of the clearest ways for nerds who knew these points, but who lacked political skills, to throw themselves onto the gears of history and do something good for the world.
So, as a 19-year-old grad student, I created a website called “In Defense of NaderTrading” (archived version), which didn’t arrange vote swaps themselves—other sites did that—but which explored some of the game theory behind the concept and answered some common objections to it. (See also here.) Within days of creating the site, I’d somehow become an “expert” on the topic, and was fielding hundreds of emails as well as requests for print, radio, and TV interviews.
Alas, the one question everyone wanted to ask me was the one that I, as a CS nerd, was the least qualified to answer: is NaderTrading legal? isn’t it kind of like … buying and selling votes?
I could only reply that, to my mind, NaderTrading obviously ought to be legal, because:
- Members of Congress and state legislatures trade votes all the time.
- A private agreement between two friends to each vote for the other’s preferred candidate seems self-evidently legal, so why should it be any different if a website is involved?
- The whole point of NaderTrading is to exercise your voting power more fully—pretty much the opposite of bartering it away for private gain.
- While the election laws vary by state, the ones I read very specifically banned trading votes for tangible goods—they never even mentioned trading votes for other votes, even though they easily could’ve done so had legislators intended to ban that.
But—and here was the fatal problem—I could only address principles and arguments, rather than politics and power. I couldn’t honestly assure the people who wanted to vote-swap, or to set up vote-swapping sites, that they wouldn’t be prosecuted for it.
As it happened, the main vote-swapping site, voteswap2000.com, was shut down by California’s Republican attorney general, Bill Jones, only four days after it opened. A second vote-swapping site, votexchange.com, was never directly threatened but also ceased operations because of what happened to voteswap2000. Many legal scholars felt confident that these shutdowns wouldn’t hold up in court, but with just a few weeks until the election, there was no time to fight it.
Before it was shut down, voteswap2000 had brokered 5,041 vote-swaps, including hundreds in Florida. Had that and similar sites been allowed to continue operating, it’s entirely plausible that they would’ve changed the outcome of the election. No Iraq war, no 2008 financial meltdown: we would’ve been living in a different world. Note that, of the 100,000 Floridians who ultimately voted for Nader, we would’ve needed to convince fewer than 1% of them.
Today, we face something I didn’t expect to face in my lifetime: namely, a serious prospect of a takeover of the United States by a nativist demagogue with open contempt for democratic norms and legendarily poor impulse control. Meanwhile, there are two third-party candidates—Gary Johnson and Jill Stein—who together command 10% of the vote. A couple months ago, I’d expressed hopes that Johnson might help Hillary, by splitting the Republican vote. But it now looks clear that, on balance, not only Stein but also Johnson are helping Trump, by splitting up that part of the American vote that’s not driven by racial resentment.
So recently a friend—the philanthropist and rationalist Holden Karnofsky—posed a question to me: should we revive the vote-swapping idea from 2000? And presumably this time around, enhance the idea with 21st-century bells and whistles like mobile apps and Facebook, to make it all the easier for Johnson/Stein supporters in swing states and Hillary supporters in safe states to find each other and trade votes?
Just like so many well-meaning people back in 2000, Holden was worried about one thing: is vote-swapping against the law? If someone created a mobile vote-swapping app, could that person be thrown in jail?
At first, I had no idea: I assumed that vote-swapping simply remained in the legal Twilight Zone where it was last spotted in 2000. But then I did something radical: I looked it up. And when I did, I discovered a decade-old piece of news that changes everything.
On August 6, 2007, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals finally ruled on a case, Porter v. Bowen, stemming from the California attorney general’s shutdown of voteswap2000.com. Their ruling, which is worth reading in full, was unequivocal.
Vote-swapping, it said, is protected by the First Amendment, which state election laws can’t supersede. It is fundamentally different from buying or selling votes.
Yes, the decision also granted the California attorney general immunity from prosecution, on the ground that vote-swapping’s legality hadn’t yet been established in 2000—indeed it wouldn’t be, until the Ninth Circuit’s decision itself! Nevertheless, the ruling made clear that the appellants (the creators of voteswap2000 and some others) were granted the relief they sought: namely, an assurance that vote-swapping websites would be protected from state interference in the future.
Admittedly, if vote-swapping takes off again, it’s possible that the question will be re-litigated and will end up in the Supreme Court, where the Ninth Circuit’s ruling could be reversed. For now, though, let the message be shouted from the rooftops: a court has ruled. You cannot be punished for cooperating with your fellow citizens to vote strategically, or for helping others do the same.
For those of you who oppose Donald Trump and who are good at web and app development: with just two months until the election, I think the time to set up some serious vote-swapping infrastructure is right now. Let your name be etched in history, alongside those who stood up to all the vicious demagogues of the past. And let that happen without your even needing to get up from your computer chair.
I’m not, I confess, a huge fan of either Gary Johnson or Jill Stein (especially not Stein). Nevertheless, here’s my promise: on November 8, I will cast my vote in the State of Texas for Gary Johnson, if I can find at least one Johnson supporter who lives in a swing state, who I feel I can trust, and who agrees to vote for Hillary Clinton on my behalf.
If you think you’ve got what it takes to be my vote-mate, send me an email, tell me about yourself, and let’s talk! I’m not averse to some electoral polyamory—i.e., lots of Johnson supporters in swing states casting their votes for Clinton, in exchange for the world’s most famous quantum complexity blogger voting for Johnson—but I’m willing to settle for a monogamous relationship if need be.
And as for Stein? I’d probably rather subsist on tofu than vote for her, because of her support for seemingly every pseudoscience she comes across, and especially because of her endorsement of the vile campaign to boycott Israel. Even so: if Stein supporters in swing states whose sincerity I trusted offered to trade votes with me, and Johnson supporters didn’t, I would bury my scruples and vote for Stein. Right now, the need to stop the madman takes precedence over everything else.
One last thing to get out of the way. When they learn of my history with NaderTrading, people keep pointing me a website called BalancedRebellion.com, and exclaiming “look! isn’t this exactly that vote-trading thing you were talking about?”
On examination, Balanced Rebellion turns out to be the following proposal:
- A Trump supporter in a swing state pairs off with a Hillary supporter in a swing state.
- Both of them vote for Gary Johnson, thereby helping Johnson without giving an advantage to either Hillary or Trump.
So, exercise for the reader: see if you can spot the difference between this idea and the kind of vote-swapping I’m talking about. (Here’s a hint: my version helps prevent a racist lunatic from taking command of the most powerful military on earth, rather than being neutral about that outcome.)
Not surprisingly, the “balanced rebellion” is advocated by Johnson fans.