Wanna Buy an Election?

Now that I’ve voted (absentee), I have decided it’s safe to look at one of the more interesting sidelights of this year’s election: the buying and trading of votes.

It started baldly enough, with a site called vote-auction.com. The site, launched by RPI student James Baumgartner, was called a parody of the current system in which politicians peddle their influence for campaign contributions.

New York State officials were not amused. They ordered it taken down. It was supposedly bought and relaunched by Austrian Hans Bernard, but a recent check at the URL found that no site exists.

Vote-swap sites might be more interesting, if only as an illustration of how ancient and convoluted America’s election process really is.

If you’re unfamiliar with the American voting system, bear with me a moment. America’s Electoral College gives all the votes in a state to the candidate who wins that state, even if he or she wins by one vote, even if he or she just gets a plurality.

Most of the time, this is a great thing. Very close elections like the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon and 1968 Nixon-Humphrey races were turned into romps because the winner took several states by very close margins. The system helped make the victor’s win more legitimate.

One time, in 1888, it didn’t work out that way. Incumbent Grover Cleveland won the popular vote, but Republican Benjamin Harrison won the Electoral College, offsetting huge losses in the South with close wins in the North. The result was four years of anger before the race was essentially run again with Cleveland winning handsomely. (This did him little good. The economy crashed in 1893 along with the Democratic hopes for a generation.)

Now some Democrats, fearing that Ralph Nader will tip liberal states to Republican George W. Bush, are trying to rerun that 1888 race. Here’s what they’re offering at sites like WinWin Campaign, VoteExchange, and two closely named sites, Nader’s Traders and Nader Trader.

Gore voters in places like Texas, Bush’s home state, come to the site and agree informally to vote for Nader. In exchange, Nader supporters in close states like Oregon agree to vote for Gore. The theory is if Nader and his Green Party get five percent of the total vote, the party will get federal funding in 2004. But Nader’s strongest support is in states like Oregon, which means that those states might end up belonging to Bush.

Needless to say, officials are no more amused by this than they were by vote buying itself. Even though the “agreements” reached on these sites aren’t legally binding, California Secretary of State Bill Jones (a Republican, by the way) closed a swap site in his state. The ACLU responded with a lawsuit, claiming the site was just “political discourse” and his order violated free speech.

I don’t know if Jones is right or wrong, but I do know this: The attempt to influence the election in this way won’t work. The Net is not that powerful — yet. And when it does reach its glory, it won’t be through these web-based vote swaps. It will be through something far more powerful: email.

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