It was the year of the recount, the hanging chad and the call to rethink the electoral college.
Long before Election Day, though, Americans knew the race would be close — so close, in fact, that they feared “protest” votes for third-party candidates Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan would ultimately decide who got to call the White House home.
Votes for them, however slight, took votes away from the Democrat and Republican — labeled “throwaway” votes. (Sound familiar?)
The slight made “protest” voters — particularly those in the Nader camp — mad, but they acknowledged there was validity to the argument, and used the Internet to craft a solution.
They called it Nader Traders.
The idea was this: Convince Nader fans in swing states like Florida to pledge to swap their votes with Gore fans in uncontested, deep blue or red “safe” states. Nader’s total winnings of the popular vote would remain the same — preserving principle — but their precious swing-state ballots would influence the electoral college tally, which decides the election anyway. Under this system, a vote for Nader meant a vote for Not Bush.
They could, in theory, have their cake and eat it, too.
They built websites and matched an estimated 35,000 voters nationwide.
And come Election Day, they failed.
But 16 years later, in the midst of another bitterly tight presidential election, the politically savvy are resurrecting the concept with hopes of a more successful outcome — this time, to stop Donald Trump.
Behold, Trump Traders.
Voters who support third-party candidates in crucial battleground states are swapping their votes across state lines in a bid to keep Donald Trump out of the White House.
It’s a matchmaking website — like Tinder for votes — developed by John Stubbs and Ricardo Reyes, co-founders of the grass-roots network R4C16 (Republicans for Clinton in 2016). The men, both former advisers during the Bush administration, created the mechanism as a way for lifetime conservative voters to stop “the threat posed by Donald Trump” and “ensure he loses and does not become the standard bearer for the party and the nation,” according to the R4C16 website.
They could be anti-Trump but remain, at least through their ballot, anti-Hillary Clinton.
“Republicans everywhere should show up to vote, and those in swing states should vote tactically, for Mrs. Clinton, and for Republicans down ticket,” the R4C16 founders wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times. “But for voters who can’t quite stomach pulling the lever for the Democrat, offsetting that choice with a pledged vote in another state may make all the difference.”
The Trump Traders website first asks visitors to select who their top choice for president is come Nov. 8: “The Donald,” Clinton, Green Party candidate Jill Stein or Libertarian Gary Johnson.
Next, users are told to select the state in which they vote, and then to allow Facebook to finish out the matchmaking. An email is sent with further instructions, including how to connect with your match via Facebook chat and further discuss the swap.
It’s targeting primarily millennial voters, familiar with apps like Uber and Airbnb, who might be casting ballots for third-party candidates in Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Texas.
“Ship your vote to a state where it can’t help Trump win,” the website says, beside a map of the United States with a yellow line drawn from blue California to Ohio.
Another vote-swapping app, #NeverTrump, was launched through the tech company Trimian. That mechanism, according to Trimian co-founder Amit Kumar, has 7000 active users. They expect to hit 10,000 by the weekend.
“If those sites had been successful in switching just 538 more people, Al Gore would have been president,” Stubbs told Reuters. “And that fact, I think, showed the power that these exchanges could potentially have.”
More than 10,000 voters had signed up for Trump Traders by Halloween, reported McClatchy News Service, when the program had been activated for just a week and a half.
Then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush and then-Vice President Al Gore debate during the last of three U.S. presidential debates in 2000. (Jeff Mitchell/Reuters)
The launch mirrors the timetable afforded to Nader Trader voters in the 2000 presidential election, back when the Internet was far more archaic, smartphones didn’t exist and millennials were in middle school.
Two weeks before the Bush/Gore showdown, several Nader Trader websites cropped up — including Votexchange2000.com and Voteswap2000.com.
But just days later, the then-California Secretary of State Bill Jones sent an email to the creators of one website, threatening criminal prosecution if they didn’t immediately shut down the program. He said they were violated the election code and engaging in “criminal activity.” Spooked, both dismantled their operations.
They then quickly filed a lawsuit against the secretary of state, Porter v. Bowen, claiming their First Amendment rights had been violated by his threat.
It took years, but in 2007, a decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled that vote swapping is “clearly protected by the First Amendment.” More specifically, the mechanism used to facilitate the trade — essentially an online messaging forum — is digital free speech, and as long as no gifts or bribes are exchanged during a vote trade transaction, the action is perfectly legal.
“Although California certainly has valid interests in preventing election fraud and corruption, and perhaps in avoiding the subversion of the Electoral College, these interests did not justify the complete disabling of the vote-swapping mechanisms,” the Porter v. Bowen decision read.
Michael Mims, a 30-year-old attorney in New Orleans, told The Washington Post in a phone interview that he briefly considered registering for Trump Traders before realizing the incentive didn’t really apply to his situation. Louisiana is a historically Republican state and Mims, a third-party voter, likely wouldn’t sway the electoral college no matter whose name he marked at the polls.
So rather than let somebody else vote for his conscience, he voted for Gary Johnson himself.
He said he tends to lean conservative, but “the idea of helping Trump get elected terrifies me.”
“Last election, when it was Romney and Obama, I frankly didn’t care who won,” Mims told The Post. “This election, I find myself caring very much. This is the first election in my memory where I would have some real misgivings if my protest vote helped elect the wrong person.”
But other young voters across the country have expressed fierce objections to the vote-swapping process.
“I vote in order to have my voice heard, whether that be a vote for Donald Trump or even Dr. Jill Stein, my vote is my voice,” Johnson Hunter, a third-year at Ohio State University, told USA Today College in an email. “I have (absolutely) no respect for anyone who trades their vote like this so elite super PACs can play a sick game of chess with our electoral system.”
Stubbs and Reyes, the R4C16 and Trump Trader founders, don’t see it that way. Vote swapping, they say, is not manipulation, but strategy.
“By voting tactically in 2016,” they wrote in their Times op-ed, “conscientious Republicans can still prevent the worst-case scenario: Mr. Trump taking over the White House, and the G.O.P.”Contact with post author