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"America has two great dominant strands of political thought - conservatism, which, at its very best, draws lines that should not be crossed; and progressivism, which, at its very best, breaks down barriers that should never have been erected." -- Bill Clinton, Dedication of the Clinton Presidential Library, November 2004

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Tuesday, June 17, 2003


Looking Ahead: vote swapping

posted by Aziz P. at Tuesday, June 17, 2003 permalink View blog reactions
This will be the summer of short-term goals. The Dean campaign is like a powerful train, chugging determinedly up what is still a very gradual slope. We have a long way to go before we even start thinking about strategizing for the nomination, let alone the primary. But I think that some examination of long-term strategy is important, and so this will be the first in a semi-regular series called Looking Ahead that will analyze the General Election[1].

I have argued before that the 2000 Election was a triumph for American democracy. Not the end result, but rather the process:

In the end, Bush was uniquely positioned to win, and Gore uniquely positioned to concede (in possibility the greatest concession speech in history). I cannot even conceive how they would have acted had the roles been reversed. I imagine Bush would not have been nearly as gracious, and that the Republican grassroots would have erupted in low-intensity PR warfare. It would have been the Clinton era of GOP activism but ten times worse. And I simply don't see Gore as having been able to make the tactical decisions necessary to win (count the overvotes, demand a statewide recount not just in Miami Dade). Gore tried to keep the federal courts out of the fray, at first, and thus lost significant traction to Bush (who brilliantly went straight to the Circuit courts even as GOP PR minions were accusing Gore of trying to make a federal issue out of something clealrly a states-rights issue. Hypocrisy can often be a brilliant tactical weapon).

But again, the essential point was that the system worked. The Constitution held up, there was a clear line to be drawn and the Supreme Court in the end drew that line. You can argue that the SCOTUS was partisan, but the fact remains that it was the SCOTUS that was partisan and not some military tribunal. Scalia is better than Musharraf, and if you disagree, you are hopelessly ignorant of the basis of American freedom.

Many will point to the Electoral College as the root cause of Gore's loss - but as the link explains in detail, the purpose that the EC serves is critical to ensuring that the Office of the Presidency remains committed to the interests of the entire nation, rather than that of a specific (and highly populous) region. Disagree as you might, the Electoral College will nevertheless remain for the 2004 election - and this is the reality which we need to strategize for.

This poses a dilemma for Dean supporters in states such as Texas which are certain to have a plurality of votes for Bush. Even if 49% of the states' voters could be persuaded to vote Democratic, the entire slate of electoral votes would still go to Bush (keep in mind that each state is free to determine whether their electoral votes are winner-take-all or not). my vote for Dean in Texas 2004 (just like my vote for Gore in Texas 2000) is a wasted vote.

I solved this dilemma in the 2000 Election by vote swapping. The idea was to use the Internet for "vote-swapping" between Nader supporters in swing states like Michigan, Oregon, etc. and Gore supporters in Republican-dominated states like Texas, Virgina, etc. Gore supporters would vote for Nader and Nader supporters would vote for Gore. That way Gore would not lose Electoral College votes to Bush (and Nader supporters would be assured their support for third-party politics will not give them a President opposed to their agenda, ie Bush). And Nader would get the 5% of the popular vote he needed to fund Greens 2004. Everyone would have won[2].

The idea was first promoted in an article in Slate, and was quickly implemented by netroot activists, establishing the vote-swap sites Vote Exchange and Nader Trader[3]. This was, I believe, the first time that The Internet played such a direct role in manipulating a national election, and should be considered a historical event. Vote-swapping is the ancestor of Meetup and blogs and Howard Dean TV.

In the end, as many as 10,000 people swapped their votes (including me). Given that the election was lost in Florida by a margin of just a few hundred, this was a painfully close-but-no-cigar outcome. The Internet could literally have delivered the election to Gore - if only there had been Meetup back then!

Looking ahead then - what about 2004? How do we harness the millions of votes that Dean supporters in states like Texas, Virginia, etc want to cast but will ultimately be negated? If Nader runs again in 2004 - the Green party holds their convention in June in Milwaukee - then vote-swapping with Nader supporters will definitely be an option. But even if Nader doesn't run, or the Greens don't field a candidate, there still is a lot of good that GOP-captive Dean supporters can do with their otherwise nullified votes. Specifically, we could support the Libertarian Party candidate (usually Harry Browne), with an eye towards building an alliance and luring libetarians away from a GOP that pays mere lip service to their ideology anyway (traditionally, American liberals and libertarians have actually always had more in common). And that translates directly into a vote for Dean.

Vote-swapping is a way to reclaim the power of a single vote - and to spend the "vote capital" in more diverse ways than mere direct election of your candidate. We in states such as Texas have a lot of thinking to do as to how to invest that capital - to change its value from zero to something net positive.

I support Howard Dean. But in Texas, I can't help him by voting for him.

UPDATE: The perception of vote swapping as illegal is completely wrong. In fact, members of Congress engage in vote-swapping on a routine basis. And though one vote-swap site was shut down in California, the state explicitly admitted that there was no legal wrongdoing. Most of the responses critiquing vote-swapping clearly did not understand the concept, I refer you back to the Slate article. The point is that my vote for Dean, which is wasted in Texas, can be transferred to another state where it can actually help Dean.

[1]That Howard Dean will win the Democratic nomination is an axiom, of course :)
[2]Note that vote-swapping was immune, from the perspective of the Gore supporter, to cheating by either a Nader supporter or a Bush supporter masquerading as a Nader supporter. Even if the other person in the swing state lies and did not cast their vote for Gore as promised, the net effect is the same as if there was never any trade.
[3]All these sites are now offline. A third site, Vote Swap 2000, was closed down by the FEC. And a fourth site, Vote Auction, was also set up for people to directly sell their votes. Despite FEC regs and federal law prohibiting the outright selling of votes, keep in mind that this is what happens on a practical level every time a PAC makes a donation to a candidate.


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About Nation-Building

Nation-Building was founded by Aziz Poonawalla in August 2002 under the name Dean Nation. Dean Nation was the very first weblog devoted to a presidential candidate, Howard Dean, and became the vanguard of the Dean netroot phenomenon, raising over $40,000 for the Dean campaign, pioneering the use of Meetup, and enjoying the attention of the campaign itself, with Joe Trippi a regular reader (and sometime commentor). Howard Dean himself even left a comment once. Dean Nation was a group weblog effort and counts among its alumni many of the progressive blogsphere's leading talent including Jerome Armstrong, Matthew Yglesias, and Ezra Klein. After the election in 2004, the blog refocused onto the theme of "purple politics", formally changing its name to Nation-Building in June 2006. The primary focus of the blog is on articulating purple-state policy at home and pragmatic liberal interventionism abroad.