High Concept

Nader’s Traders

How to save Al Gore’s bacon by swapping votes on the Internet.

According to the Washington Post and the Al Gore campaign, the presidential race is now so close that a strong showing by Ralph Nader in 10 swing states could help give George W. Bush the 270 Electoral College votes he needs to win. This leaves hundreds of thousands of progressive Nader supporters in swing states such as Maine, Michigan, Oregon, Washington, and New Mexico with a dilemma: Should they vote their hearts for Ralph and make sure he gets the 5 percent of the popular vote needed to qualify the 2004 Green Party presidential candidate for federal funding? Or should they vote strategically for Al to stop George?

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of frustrated Gore voters trapped in the Republican-controlled states of Texas, Louisiana, Virginia, Utah, and Alaska face a quandary of their own. Bush holds such a commanding lead in these places that even if Gore supporters cast their ballots for their man, he won’t win any of those states. These are truly wasted votes.

But wait! There is a way for Gore voters trapped in Republican states to liberate Nader supporters in the tossup states to vote for Gore without actually abandoning their support for Nader and a strong Green Party in the future. The key is a variation on a voting device used in the Senate called “pairing,” whereby senators on opposite sides of issues match up their votes if they are going to be away from Washington. (This arrangement is so formal that when the Congressional Record reports the ayes and nays on a vote, it reflects the pairs by name.)

The Gore/Nader vote-swapping plan could use a Web site to pair individual Gore Democrats in Republican states with individual Nader supporters in swing states. Democrats from Texas and other states in the definite Bush column could register at the site by name under a brief text stating that, as Gore supporters in a Republican state, they have concluded that their best hope for contributing to a Gore victory is to vote for Nader in the explicit hope that Nader voters in swing states will correspondingly cast their ballots for Gore. Nader supporters in the swing states could add their names to a similar list under a brief text stating that, as Nader supporters in a tossup state, they have decided to vote for Gore but do so in the explicit hope that Gore voters in Republican states will correspondingly cast their ballots for Nader. Using sorting software, the Web site could then match individual Gore voters to individual Nader voters. If just 100,000 Gore supporters and 100,000 Nader supporters in the key states registered and kept their words, both a Gore victory and federal funding for the Greens could be accomplished.

This plan is not for everyone. Some people regard voting as primarily moral and expressive—not political and strategic—behavior, and they will recoil at the thought of ever pulling the lever for someone who is not their first-choice candidate. I cannot convince them. This is a plan for people who regard voting as essentially strategic behavior that requires us to focus on real-world political outcomes and meanings. But if it is immoral to vote strategically, the campaigns should stop trying to convince people—Nader voters, most prominently—to change their votes.

Others might suggest that the plan won’t work because it is based on the honor system, and all citizens will have an incentive to break their own promises. I do not share this rather grim evaluation of human nature. At any rate, I would suppose that the tendency and proclivity to lie are constant features proportionately distributed across members of different political parties. Besides, the logic of vote-swapping is so appealing that it might encourage some Gore and Nader voters to spontaneously cast their ballots for the other guy without registering at the Web site.

Finally, it might be argued that there is something irresponsible about this kind of massive vote-trading. The point is off-base. It is the highest form of democratic politics to consult your fellow citizens about electoral choices. We are obviously not talking about any kind of binding, enforceable contract here. Although state laws prohibit the selling of votes, this would surely not count as vote-selling. Since no one is bound by their statements, it would not even amount to vote-trading, which is itself a perfectly permissible and ordinary activity. Indeed, vote-trading is the essence of legislative logrolling in Washington: You vote yes on my highway bill, and I will vote yes on your tax bill. We compromise to arrive at mutually workable solutions.

The choices we are forced to make in presidential elections reflect the peculiarities of the Electoral College system. In this election, the indecision experienced by Nader Democrats and Greens in tossup states is only matched by the impotent frustration of Gore Democrats in states where the Gore campaign has essentially pulled up stakes and surrendered to Bush. I say they should join forces through the Internet and become professors of the Electoral College rather than dropouts from it.