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[whitespace] Bill Jones Votebuster Former Secretary of State Bill Jones led the charge to break up vote pairing, a novel method to circumvent the Electoral College.

I'll Vote Yours, You Vote Mine

Why vote swapping failed in two elections. And why it might work in 2008.

By Scott Duke Harris

ON THE MORNING after Election Day, the first email I opened began with these words. "I am depressed." The message came from Carnet Williams, volunteer coordinator of a scrappy online political operation called VotePair.org that waged a novel campaign aimed at defeating President Bush. His sentiments, it seems safe to say, were shared by 49 percent of the American electorate.

A couple days later, my own funk deepened. Surfing the website of the Los Angeles Times, my professional home for two decades, I stumbled upon a headline: "Jones Is Cut Out for Public Service, Not Politics." Could it be that Jones?

The fluff piece was by Capitol Journal columnist George Skelton, a much-respected Sacramento-based political writer I know only in passing. It was, I suppose, a nice gesture—a big wet sloppy kiss for Bill Jones, the Republican Senate nominee everybody knew was about to be clobbered by Barbara Boxer. As California's secretary of state, Jones was an excellent public servant and, Skelton wrote, a great argument against term limits.

Then Skelton wrote words that deepened my own sense of failure: "Jones conducted the office in a nonpartisan manner, attempting to increase voter participation regardless of party. Nobody questioned his integrity. He was on the cutting edge of technology."

Perhaps Skelton missed my story a year earlier, in Los Angeles Times Magazine, recounting a forgotten dark episode of the 2000 election, featuring Bill Jones as the heavy. Jones threatened Internet-based activists with imprisonment, intimidating them into shutting down websites. Jones was accused of using his office to trample on the First Amendment for partisan advantage. The activists' crime? They had devised a novel Internet-based political movement aimed at defeating George W. Bush. I assume Skelton must have missed the entire episode while researching his piece. After all, the mainstream media had botched the story.

Almost unthinkable before the Internet, the activists advocated "vote trading" across state lines. Progressives in bastions of conservatism—Utah, for example—could promise to vote for Ralph Nader if progressives in swing states like Florida or Ohio would promise to vote for Al Gore in 2000. This cured the headache caused by the mantra "a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush."

Websites like NaderTrader.org and VoteExchange.org sprouted, urging Nader supporters in swing states to "trade votes" with Democrats in partisan strongholds. Assuming that trust is established, the dilemma-breaking strategy would rebalance the Electoral College to help Gore beat Bush without diminishing the votes for Nader.

Having bonded through a heady, harsh education during the 2000 presidential campaign, Carnet Williams and his cohorts—about 20 in all, scattered across the country, launched the VotePair.org site with a trinity of goals: Defeat George Bush. Support third parties. Build a progressive majority.

The vote trading movement represented a radical shift in online organizing. The trailblazing MoveOn.org operation shrewdly applied a new technology to old political tricks—petitions, polemics and fundraising. Vote trading was bolder. I admired their idealism and commitment, and I became convinced they'd gotten a royal screwing in 2000—by political hacks and a media that largely botched the story.

So I embarked on my own campaign, determined to chronicle the VotePair.org effort. It was a long shot, I knew, but maybe, just maybe, VotePair would make a difference. From my computer in my San Jose home, I blitzed the alternative press in relevant states across America with emails carrying subject lines like "Will Vote Swappers Decide Iowa?" or "Will Kiffmeyer Kill Vote Trading?" With luck, I figured, there might even be a book contract at the end of the journey.

Instead, there is this article you are reading.

Complicated Conscience

I've encountered many otherwise well-informed people who have never heard of vote trading. Among those with some familiarity, many harbor the false belief that the practice is illegal. Others simply remember it as a failed concept, when the best evidence suggests that it merely fell short.

The movement ignited on Oct. 25, 2000, when Jamin Raskin, a law professor at American University in Washington, D.C., published a vote trading manifesto in the online magazine Slate. Even Raskin had no idea that the kind of websites he envisioned were already up and that more sophisticated ones were in the works. Within days of his article, a dozen new sites appeared, registering thousands of prospective participants.

The sites also attracted scorn from all directions. Among the Greens, Raskin says, "one guy denounced me as a Democratic Party operative trying to get my résumé in early for the Gore administration," Raskin told me. "The thing that blows me away is that a lot of Greens were saying it was immoral, and Democrats were saying it wouldn't work. And the people who got the point were the Republicans who were cracking down on the websites."

Bill Jones led the charge. On the day before Halloween, Jones' office sent Voteswap2000.com an email accusing its two founders of engaging in criminal activity, warning that each brokered vote constituted a felony carrying "a maximum penalty of three years in state prison. Jones' office cited a section of the election code that criminalized "any money, gift, loan or other valuable consideration" for inducing "any other person to ... vote or refrain from voting for any particular person or measure."

The activists were so stunned they shut down the site. "I guess that would be three years each for 2,500 violations," Voteswap2000 creator Jim Cody told me glumly. He envisioned state police seizing his computer, the means of his livelihood. "It wasn't a comfortable evening, I'll put it that way," he says.

Alan Porter and Anand Ranganathan, then based in Silicon Valley, shuttered a similar site when they heard about Jones' threats. The ACLU would later represent Porter in a lawsuit against Jones, but the political damage was done. Raskin and others accused Jones of trampling on the First Amendment for partisan advantage. The vote trading movement limped forward under a cloud of suspicion.

My gut told me Jones was wrong. Don't free speech and the right to assemble apply to the Internet? I also knew that Jones had reason to get back in the Bush administration's good graces. During the Republican primary, he had switched allegiances from Bush to John McCain, a betrayal that cost him dearly. Still, I dutifully tried to understand Jones' rationale that vote trading violated California's "vote buying" laws when nothing of tangible value changed hands. Every state has laws against vote buying; election chiefs in only four other states followed Jones' lead. Of the four, only one was a Democrat—and he reversed his position after further study. The pattern, to me, was clearly partisan.

But where was the media coverage? Buried inside, mostly, and largely dancing to Jones' tune. I don't recall a single editorial or commentary taking Jones to task. The watchdog was acting like a lapdog.

Yes, vote trading was new, different and provocative. It raised ethical concerns, often summed up in the statement that "people should vote their conscience." But as Raskin put it, "What if your conscience is more complicated?"

It really did seem ludicrous when one of Jones' aides explained to me that California law is so strict that spouses who pair votes—I'll vote for the school bond, honey, if you vote against the transit tax—are, essentially, outlaws conspiring to commit election fraud. Besides, the terms "vote trading" or the sexier "vote swapping" are misnomers; what are exchanged are promises, not ballots. That's one reason why the activists of 2004 preferred "vote pairing," a more benign and technically accurate description of an alliance, not a mere quid pro quo.

Despite efforts to intimidate the movement, evidence indicates it had some impact on the 2000 election. A postelection survey found that more than 15,000 partnerships had been forged, though nobody knows how much pairing occurred among family and friends. Vote trading advocates make a plausible case that, without their efforts, Gore would not have recorded his 366-vote victory in New Mexico. In Florida, where Bush's victory was certified at 537 votes, some 1,400 Naderites had agreed to pair up, while 97,000 Floridians cast ballots for Nader.

Who knows how far it would have gone had it not been for Bill Jones. Not long after the 2000 election, I got a sense of how well his crackdown had worked during an interview with Wes Boyd and Joan Blades, the Berkeley residents who founded MoveOn.org .

Boyd and Blades are well-informed, outspoken, sophisticated and liberal. They are passionate about the First Amendment and its application to the Internet. And even they thought vote trading was illegal.

Rendezvous With Destiny

I placed articles in seven publications, including Florida's Orlando Weekly and Iowa's Des Moines Point Blank. Rejection was the rule, however, and I was shut out in every large swing state except Florida. Unlike 2000, Republican hacks in this year's election opted to smear the vote swapping strategy rather than attempt legal action. A crackdown would have caused press coverage and a court fight. VotePair had its legal guns lined up. If VotePair was doing something illegal, then election chiefs were derelict in not challenging the practice. It makes the Jones crackdown look even more politically motivated.

Looking back, it's easier to understand why so many editors passed on the story, given the dynamics of a race that had so polarized the nation. The press didn't botch it the way they did in 2000. In the final analysis, VotePair.org was a noble effort, but this time, unlike 2000, it really was just a blip on the screen. Even more than Bush, the two-party system was a big winner in 2004, generating a huge turnout that pushed alternative parties to the margins. Early on, VotePair folks speculated 50,000 users could be enough to tip the election. In the end, VotePair registered 21,992 people—more than one-third from Utah, where Salt Lake City's Democratic mayor was among those 7,972 people who signed up. I like to think he was inspired by my piece in the Salt Lake City Weekly. But only 2,659 pairs were formed, because VotePair had trouble mustering interest in swing states.

But the dynamics change with every election. The Electoral College, alas, seems utterly resistant to reform, and the Internet seems likely to become only more important. For those reasons, I suspect that the vote pairing strategy will someday have its rendezvous with destiny. Many years from now, somebody might put it all in a book, and I hope they find my old clips.


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From the November 24-30, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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