Brigham Young made history by leading his persecuted people to the uniquely American promised land of Utah. Today, inside an old green Victorian co-op in a gritty stretch of Oakland’s San Antonio district, a son of Utah named Brent Emerson taps away at his computer, striving to liberate his fellow progressives from a uniquely American form of political persecution known as the electoral college. In 2000, the votes of 557 Floridians somehow mattered more than those of 550,000 of their fellow Americans — and is that any way to run a democracy?
Emerson, a Salt Lake City native, doesn’t think so. That’s why the information technology pro is among the twenty or so activists contributing their skills to VotePair.org, part of a Web-based movement that hopes to exploit the electoral college and turn the tables on President Bush in November. Reviving a provocative idea that stirred controversy in 2000, the site’s organizers aim to defeat the president by encouraging alliances between Democrats in so-called red states — GOP strongholds such as Utah, Texas, and Wyoming — and third-party voters in battleground states such as Florida, Ohio, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.
Here’s how it works: A Nader supporter registered to vote in Ohio, say, teams up with a Utah Democrat via the Web site. The Naderite pledges to vote for Kerry while, in exchange, the Democrat promises to cast his lot for Nader. If both follow through, the only loser is the incumbent: The progressive chalks one up for his conscience and still helps unseat the prez, while the Dem gets to weigh in where his vote counts.
For Emerson and fellow Salt Lake-to-Oakland volunteer Amy Morris, this is personal. Both hail from liberal Utah families that feel “perpetually disenfranchised” from the electoral process. “No matter how they vote, they know that at the end of the night it’s going to be one big red mass,” Emerson says of his family and friends back home. Morris likes the idea of paying back a third-grade classmate who said mean things about Walter Mondale, which the kid no doubt learned from her parents. “Growing up a Democrat in Utah is definitely weird,” she says.
The site’s volunteers are divided into working groups that cover technical applications, political analysis, marketing and media, and legal support. Morris, who is working toward a doctorate in environmental studies at UC Santa Cruz, is among the analysts. Emerson, partner in Web services business Electric Embers, is focusing on firewalls to defend the group’s servers against the inevitable hackers and harassment.
In a trust-based system, however, no firewall can keep the odd Bush backer from posing as a progressive. The VotePair activists urge potential pairers to exchange e-mails and phone calls to help ensure both parties are legit. Better yet, they say, pair up with family or friends out of state. While the system isn’t foolproof, advocates note that the electoral college, ironically enough, provides some built-in protections — at worst, a Bush supporter posing as a Florida Green might deceive a few red-state Democrats into voting for Green candidate David Cobb, thus depressing Kerry’s overall popular vote, which doesn’t count toward victory anyway.
Then again, conservatives could presumably benefit from vote pairing in future elections. And more sites are expected to crop up this year, including one with a Libertarian bent and others that purport to be nonpartisan.
Advocates of vote pairing, a strategy that was almost unthinkable on a large scale in the pre-Internet era, say it is an answer to the inequities of the electoral college, an arcane system born from the notorious 18th-century compromise that counted slaves as three-fifths of a human being. If enough Americans participate across state lines, they say, the result could be poetic justice: Bush could win the popular vote and lose the presidency. And third-party voters could garner some credit rather than widespread disdain.
Indeed, several prominent national Green Party activists have gotten behind the idea, a dramatic change from 2000 when Ralph Nader, then running as a Green, publicly scorned it. Now a group called Greens for Kerry is actively promoting the concept, as are some members of a group called Greens for Impact. Greens for Kerry founder Sarah Newman of San Francisco dreams of using the strategy to unite Greens, Naderites, liberal Democrats, and independents in a broad progressive coalition whose influence would extend beyond November. Green candidate David Cobb, while not explicitly endorsing the practice, is respectful of the effort. “Kerry is bad, but Bush is much worse,” Cobb says. “Bush is a genuine threat to the planet.”
So is vote pairing legal? Absolutely, its proponents say. Most of the VotePair activists in fact joined forces after independently working on similar sites in 2000, when their various efforts were damaged by a constitutionally dubious crackdown by a handful of Republican state election officials, most notably then-California Secretary of State Bill Jones.
This time around, they promise, they’re prepared for legal combat, should the need arise. “We learned a lot in 2000, about what to do and what not to do, and what the pitfalls are,” says Carnet Williams, a Nature Conservancy employee in Hawaii who coordinates the geographically scattered VotePair volunteers.
The 2000 campaign was a trial by fire for proponents of vote trading. The then-low-profile idea took off after online magazine Slate published an Oct. 29, 2000 vote-swapping manifesto by American University law professor Jamin Raskin. The article brought people to the existing Web sites and inspired new ones, but as traffic zoomed, Bill Jones sent a letter to the Los Angeles operators of VoteSwap2000 accusing them of “a criminal activity.” Jones went on to threaten them with imprisonment for violating a state law that prohibits exchange of a vote “for a consideration of value.” Shaken by the thought of authorities arresting them and seizing their computers, the activists shut down two Web sites that had registered thousands of visitors.
Raskin promptly accused Jones, a Republican now running for the Senate against Barbara Boxer, of trampling on the First Amendment for partisan advantage, but the damage was done. The ACLU was unable to secure a restraining order on behalf of the sites, and the movement limped forward, wounded. Emerson and Morris were so outraged by the crackdown that they hastily put up their own site simply to show that the activists wouldn’t be intimidated.
To many observers, Jones’ legal theory strained credulity. The secretary’s aides, struggling to explain the strict nature of California law, insisted it was illegal even for a husband and wife to exchange pledges over, say, school board or sewer district races — a preposterous notion. Only four other state election officials opined that vote pairing was illegal — and the only Democrat among them reversed himself days later.
The others, Raskin promises, will have a tough time proving their points in court. Although the ACLU’s suit against Jones is still unresolved, it’s regarded as academic: Splitting a rather fine legal hair, Jones’ office later quietly approved other Web sites that “fostered communication” while forbidding those that automatically matched people who had already decided to trade.
After the Florida recount fiasco turned the entire phenomenon into a footnote, Emerson conducted a post-election survey of a dozen trading sites and found that 36,000 voters had registered, with more than 15,000 agreements forged. There’s no telling how many promises were kept, but a strong case can be made that vote traders helped deliver Al Gore’s 366-vote victory in New Mexico. The advocates can only wonder what might have been if not for Jones’ threats and a cool reception to the strategy from candidates Nader and Gore — how many of the 98,000 Floridians who voted for Ralph might have found a partner and opted for Al. As is, more than 1,500 Floridians had registered on vote-trading sites.
The name “VotePair” suggests another lesson learned in 2000. To some, phrases like “vote swapping” and “vote trading” hinted at unseemly conduct. The phrases are misnomers, really, since only pledges are exchanged, not votes. And the secrecy of the polling booth ensures that alliances are based on good faith, and not anything with monetary value. Ultimately, advocates say, vote pairing simply extends to citizens a political practice that occurs daily in the halls of Congress and among legislators in every statehouse in the nation — and between city council and school boardmembers, for that matter.
Even so, renewed controversy seems inevitable, and it is likely to break along partisan lines as it did four years ago. Attorney Marc John Randazza, a Florida vote-pairing advocate, says he called Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris a few days before she became a household name. Harris, he says, told him vote trading was “absolutely illegal.” With Republicans still largely in control of the state’s Division of Elections, “I would expect a hostile response in Florida,” Randazza says.
Other questions loom: Although jurisdiction appears to rest with the states, will John Ashcroft’s Department of Justice weigh in on the practice? Yier Shi, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, recently told the San Jose Mercury News that “brokering to exchange a vote, I think, runs counter to the spirit of fair elections” and characterized the vote-pairing sites as “an online scheme.”
Shi wouldn’t say whether the RNC might mount a legal challenge. But Mary Kiffmeyer, Republican Secretary of State in swingin’ Minnesota, certainly bears watching. Attorneys Raskin and Randazza found her 2000 critique especially shrill. Vote trading, Kiffmeyer declared, is “an underhanded scheme that induces voters to cast their vote for a candidate they would not normally support. The results, if successful, would discourage and demoralize voters who follow the rules, only to see their candidates defeated.”
That’s strange — voters like Emerson and Morris consider the electoral college an underhanded scheme that discourages and demoralizes them. Now if only Ms. Kiffmeyer were a Utah Democrat, or perhaps an East Bay Republican. Then maybe she’d understand.