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Ballot Busters

The Archaic Mechanism Used to Elect U.S. Presidents Is Under Assault by People Who Meet on the Internet and Pledge to Swap Votes in Next Year's Election

November 02, 2003|Scott Duke Harris | Scott Duke Harris last wrote for the magazine about Oakland, the ex-con capital of California.

The electoral college. It's like the weather. Everybody complains, nobody does anything about it.

In next year's presidential race, Americans will have their chance. As surely as Gov. Schwarzenegger will address the Republican National Convention, untold thousands of citizens will organize over the Internet to manipulate the Electoral College. Revisiting a tactic that first surfaced late in the 2000 presidential campaign, voters will form bipartisan alliances across state lines, "trading votes" between major party candidates and third-party candidates, hoping to decide whether swing states will wind up Republican or Democrat.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday November 14, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 98 words Type of Material: Correction
Presidential votes -- An article on vote-swapping in the Nov. 2 Los Angeles Times Magazine, "Ballot Busters," incorrectly stated that Al Gore's defeat in the 2000 presidential election marked the third time in U.S. history that the popular will of voters did not prevail. Although Gore's loss did mark the third time a candidate won the popular vote and lost in the electoral college, the article failed to mention that in 1824, Andrew Jackson won a plurality both in the electoral college and in the popular balloting, but the House of Representatives voted John Quincy Adams the winner.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 30, 2003 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Part I Page 6 Lat Magazine Desk 2 inches; 83 words Type of Material: Correction
An article on vote-swapping ("Ballot Busters," Nov. 2) incorrectly stated that Al Gore's defeat in the 2000 presidential election marked the third time in U.S. history that the popular will of voters did not prevail. Gore's loss did mark the third time a candidate won the popular vote and lost in the electoral college. On a fourth occasion, in 1824, candidate Andrew Jackson won both the electoral college and the popular vote, but the House of Representatives declared John Quincy Adams the winner.

Voters who do so will be accused of acting unethically, perhaps illegally, to short-circuit the election. Their defenders will say the practice is the kind of horse-trading common in American democracy. But neither side can claim it doesn't matter. Three years ago, if just 538 of the 97,488 Floridians who voted for Green Party nominee Ralph Nader had swapped pledges with Democrat Al Gore's supporters in other states, Gore would have won in Florida and become president.

In 2004, the swaps will go something like this: Democratic voters in Texas, Utah, Wyoming and other Republican strongholds will assume that the Republican ticket will win those states easily. Over the Internet they will find Green Party members and others in states where the contest is expected to be close, and the Democratic voters will propose a swap: I'll vote Green in my state if you vote Democratic in yours. Or maybe the Green will proposition the Democrat.

If pledges are exchanged and promises kept, an utterly ineffectual Democratic vote in Texas will be transformed into a meaningful one in, say, Florida. The Green swappers will have supported the Green candidate, but they won't be saddled with the "spoiler" label they had in 2000, when Nader's run drained support from Gore. Now imagine these alliances multiplied by the tens or hundreds of thousands, involving every swing state.

Vote-swapping need not be limited to the political left, however. The only requirement is the presence of an alternative candidate of any political stripe. Indeed, there were reports in 2000 of swing-state supporters of Reform Party nominee Pat Buchanan trading with Bush backers in stronghold states.

None of this would be possible, of course, if we elected our presidents by nationwide popular vote. Gore would be president today, having won 540,000 more votes than President Bush in 2000. Instead, we have the Electoral College, a legacy of the slave days, a system that is actually a series of 50 state-by-state contests, with the winner of each state receiving the tally of all its electoral votes, a number varying by state according to its population. This is why a vote for Gore in Florida three years ago ultimately counted for nothing because Gore lost the state and all 25 of its electoral votes. (It's also why a vote for Bush in California counted for nothing.)

A curious form of democracy, isn't it?

The idea of trading votes across state lines made its debut in 2000, but it popped up so late in the campaign and was slowed by a controversial crackdown by California election officials. Today the strategy's potential has grown along with the increasing role of the Internet in politics. Online organizing this year has lifted the insurgent Democratic presidential candidacies of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Gen. Wesley Clark. At least one vote-trading Web site already is programmed to go online at a moment's notice.

Another factor this year, evident in the California recall, is a general repudiation of politics as usual. Americans seem of a mood to take more control of the political process. The Internet gives voters the power to do something, finally, about the Electoral College.

If you like politics as usual, suffice it to say vote-trading isn't for you.

A vote for Nader is a vote for Bush was the cautionary mantra in 2000 that gave birth to vote-trading. Across the country, unknown to one another, a small number of Nader supporters realized that the Internet could be used to resolve a dilemma--do they vote for Nader, effectively helping Bush, or do they turn away from Nader and vote for Gore, their second choice?

Then Jamin B. Raskin, a law professor at American University in Washington, D.C., tapped out a manifesto that, on Oct. 25, 2000, was published by the online magazine Slate. Within a few days several new vote-trading Web sites sprouted, recording hundreds of thousands of visits.

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