It’s late 2000. In the heat of a looming, unpredictable election and the juvenile, experimentative phase of the world wide web, several sites launch to pioneer a peculiar concept: vote trading.
The idea is simple. As long as Ralph Nader, the Independent candidate in 2000, receives at least 5% of the popular vote nationwide, he qualifies for federal election funding. By swapping votes with Al Gore supporters, Nader supporters can make an impact towards their goal and tip swing states for the democrats.
Vote trading, a form of strategic voting in which two individuals pledge in good faith to swap votes, is not a new concept but has caused waves of controversy this election season. Several apps and sites have surfaced in the recent months with the explicit goal of preventing a Trump presidency by facilitating swaps between Hillary Clinton supporters and Independents.
“I’m only interested in voting for Clinton if I achieve a swap agreement that is believable to me.” To this Michigan voter, who is using the #NeverTrump app to find a vote trading partner, giving Evan McMullin a chance in Utah is more important than his vote in his home state.
“If I believe McMullin is the best candidate,” he says, “getting him another vote in Utah may be more important that the ‘moral evil’ of voting for Mrs. Clinton in a swing state.”
The #NeverTrump app, developed by Silicon Valley-based Trimian, provides a network where users can come together to find vote swapping partners and form discussions in regional and nationwide forums.
Amit Kumar, the founder of Trimian and creator of #NeverTrump, describes his app as “essentially a mini version of Facebook or Twitter which is task-focused.” Kumar, whose software company focuses on specialized networking apps, also offers a companion app called Get out the Vote.
“If more people vote, whoever they’re voting for is good for democracy,” Kumar says.
#NeverTrump, which has achieved over 9,000 active traders as of publication, is only one of several other apps which have seen explosive growth in the past few weeks.
A voter in California used MakeMineCount, a trading platform similar to #NeverTrump, to swap his Clinton vote for an Independent vote in a swing state.
“I got matched to a voter in Florida,” he said. “From what I’ve heard, Florida is actually looking pretty close to 50-50 right now, so it does feel like it could make a difference.”
While statistically, a single vote swap would have a marginal effect on the nationwide election, it is possible a larger vote trading movement could have an unexpected influence, especially if this election is as close as pollsters predict.
The genesis of vote trading on the web
The vote trading sites that were created in the final months before the 2000 election — Nader Trader, Vote Exchange, votexchange2000, voteswap2000, and a few others — provided services to match people online in different states based on their party affiliations. Though people were perhaps more reluctant to contact strangers online at the turn of the millennium, another roadblock stifled vote trading: its questionable legality.
On October 30, 2000, shortly before the November 7 election, California Secretary of State Bill Jones threatened to shut down websites offering any means of brokering votes, alleging they violated state laws. Though Jones’ threat was not legally binding, the message was clear.
… I demand that you end this activity immediately. If you continue, you and anyone knowingly working with you may be criminally prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
— Bill Jones, former California Secretary of State, to vote trading site voteswap2000.com
A few sites shut down, and swappers may have backed out of trades fearing litigation. In an election that was decided in Republican favor by 537 votes in the battleground state of Florida, is it possible that had vote trading been upheld, the outcome could have changed?
While any answer is purely speculative and election outcomes are the culmination of a multitude of factors, there is no doubt it could have made a difference.
Is 2016 ripe for vote trading to make a difference?
The controversy in 2000 was resolved seven years later in a 9th circuit of appeals decision. The case of Porter v. Bowen maintains that vote trading, so long as it does not involve any monetary element, is legal and protected first amendment speech.
In the years since, the topic has been relatively quiet — until a few months ago. Prominent blog posts from anthropologist Michael Oman-Reagan and quantum computing theorist Scott Aaronson spawned a new fervor for launching the vote swapping experiment on the modern web.
Now that the legal barriers are effectively removed and, as Kumar puts it, “social media people are much more comfortable talking to strangers,” there has been little resistance getting new vote trading platforms off the ground.
One platform, TrumpTraders, takes a more exploratory approach. Sponsored by Republicans for Clinton in 2016, a grassroots movement to dethrone Trump and restore the GOP to its old principles, TrumpTraders offers 2-for-1 deals for certain traders. Two Clinton supporters in certain “safe” states vow to vote for Johnson in exchange for one swing state Clinton vote.
The morality of vote trading
Many users on vote trading platforms are worried about the political sincerity of vote swapping or the trustworthiness of their matches. A #NeverTrump Clinton supporter in Oklahoma says that her “primary concern would be that the other party would not follow through with the vote.”
Indeed, a DailyDot article revealed that “trolls” abound on these vote trading systems. Specifically, Trump supporters disguise themselves as Stein or Johnson supporters on #NeverTrump to detract from Clinton’s popular vote.
There are countermeasures, however, to ensure the validity of a vote trader’s political orientation. In 21 states it is legal to take a “ballot selfie,” or a picture of your ballot.
The #NeverTrump app also allows users to link their Facebook, Twitter, Linked In, and Instagram profiles. If a user is inclined to vote swap, Kumar says, he or she is likely to have already been “talking about this on Facebook.”
The issue of vote trading is nonetheless polarizing. Within a Donald Trump-supporting community on Reddit, a public online social network, one user posted “DISGUSTING: THERE IS A WEBSITE ILLEGALLY FIXING VOTES AND TRADING VOTES WITH OTHER STATES. TAG FBI WITH THEIR TWITTER?” Of course, the same concept of vote trading could be applied to aid Trump’s efforts.
Whether vote trading is “disgusting” or “amoral” is up for interpretation. A Stein supporter in Pennsylvania says, “I do not think there is a moral or ethical issue with trading votes, as both parties are coming to an agreement and making the decision to cast their votes in a certain way, while acknowledging the risk involved.” A Clinton supporter in California is comforted by political theory, citing mathematical proof that in elections with more than two candidates “it’s actually impossible to make a voting system that doesn’t have tactical voting in it.”
The moral qualms of strategic voting do not seem to affect those in power. Vote exchanges happen frequently among congressmen and senators who arrive at mutually beneficial trades to vote on each other’s bill. Democratic and Republican candidates use a rhetoric advising third-party supporters not to “throw away their vote.”
The electoral college system, which vote trading attempts to partially circumvent in one candidate’s favor, may be outdated to some; but to Kumar, that is not the relevant issue.
“Within the political framework we have and the legal framework that we have,” Kumar says, “people should be free to do what they want to do, and if they want to trade votes to balance out a certain dynamic that should be people’s rights.”