Nineteenth-century voting system, meet your 21st-century protest.
Hoping to add more value to their presidential vote, a group of disenfranchised voters have created a Web site where supporters of John Kerry in "safe" states can trade their vote with a third-party supporter in swing states. In theory, both votes will each serve a purpose by helping Kerry win vital electoral college votes without costing a third-party candidate any portion of the popular vote.
In Utah or other states where either Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., or President George W. Bush are practically assured a victory, that could mean that a Kerry supporter would actually vote for a third-party candidate such as Ralph Nader, while a Nader supporter in a state like Ohio, Florida or New Mexico would vote for Kerry. Doing so, said University of Utah student and www.votepair.org participant Jared Richmond, would make him feel like his vote actually made a difference in the election, whereas a vote for Kerry in Utah is essentially useless because of the strong Republican majority that practically guarantees that all five of the state's electoral votes will go to Bush.
"Hundreds of thousands of votes never reach Washington," he said. "The only way I can get my vote to have more leverage is to pair it with somebody in a state where a Kerry vote could count."
Richmond and the organizers of the Web site are confident that swapping his vote is completely legal. Unlike in 2000, when a number of similar Web sites closed down because of legal threats from election officials in a half-dozen states, the Web site's organizers have posted their legal arguments and maintain there is nothing illegal or unconstitutional about pairing votes.
Utah Elections Director Amy Naccarato said that although Utah officials have heard of the vote-pairing efforts, they have not ruled on its legality. Instead, they are urging people to vote for their candidate of choice on their ballot, not for somebody else's choice.
"It's one of those legal gray areas that the law doesn't address," she said. "But we generally discourage it. As an election official, I would caution people to be careful."
What is illegal is selling your vote, and officials at Internet auction site eBay occasionally have to stop somebody who is looking for a bidder on their ballot, spokesman Hani Durzey said. Usually, they "inform the seller that it's illegal" and put an end to the auction, just as they would for anything illegal that is being sold online.
The company's "general policy is that if it's illegal to sell it offline, it's illegal to sell it online," he said.
The Web site is actually a joint effort by about two dozen people who were involved in the effort during the 2000 election, when an estimated 36,000 voters registered to trade votes, said Brent Emerson, an information technology professional in Oakland, Calif., who helped start the Web site after running a similar site in 2000.
Emerson, 28, has a long-standing frustration with the electoral process that developed while growing up in Salt Lake City, where he watched his parents casting votes for Democratic presidential candidates that had no impact on the outcome because of the state's strong Republican majority. Apparently, his parents were not the only Utah residents who felt that their vote was wasted, since more than 10 percent of the approximately 3,000 registrations on the Web site have come from the state.
"I grew up never really feeling like I had a political voice," Emerson said. "Even at a young age, I had liberal views, and even though I left at 18 and never voted in Utah, I saw the frustrations that my parents had with the system."
The Web site's purpose is threefold, Emerson said. The first is make sure that Bush is not re-elected. Taking a more long-term view, however, he also hopes that third parties get more support and that people become educated about the problems with the electoral college, which was created by the Founding Fathers as a compromise between those who wanted the president popularly elected and those who wanted the U.S. Congress to elect the president. In the electoral college system, each state gets the same number of votes as they have U.S. senators and representatives.
Google searches for Web sites that would allow Bush supporters in Democratic states to trade their votes with conservative third-party supporters yielded nothing, and Emerson said that he had not heard of any other competing sites since most of the liberal organizers are working together on votepair.org. Although Bush vote trades in swing states "would worry us," the long-term goals of changing the voting system would be helped by a conservative vote-trading Web site.
"We firmly believe in the democratic process, and want to help people work around the flaws in the system," he said.