For many establishment Republicans, the 2016 presidential election has provoked something of an identity crisis: After Donald Trump earned more GOP primary votes than any other candidate in history, it became clear that Reagan Republicans are now outnumbered by those rallying behind a television celebrity with a dubious business and personal history. That left the likes of the Bushes, Mitt Romney and others standing on the fringes asking what they are supposed to do—support the Republican nominee, reluctantly vote for Hillary Clinton or go with one of the third-party non-contenders
Or is there a fourth option for those on the #NeverTrump train? This year, some voters are strategically swapping their votes in ways that allow them to follow their conscience while still blocking Trump’s potential path to victory.
It was a concept that controversially rose to semi-prominence with “Nader Traders” during the 2000 election to block George W. Bush. In that age of the early Internet, the vote trading efforts were hastily organized and heavily resisted; the main site shuttered before the election after threats from then-California Secretary of State Bill Jones. As we know, Bush went on to win the presidency when the election went to the courts.
Although it was too little, too late to affect the outcome of that election, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the National Voting Rights Institute took up the cause by arguing that vote trading is protected by the First Amendment. In 2007, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed Internet-based vote swapping is legal. As Judge Raymond C. Fisher said in the official opinion, “The websites’ vote-swapping mechanisms as well as the communication and vote swaps they enabled were constitutionally protected.”
In the two presidential elections since then, vote trading hasn’t made many waves. But this election is different. With both Clinton and Trump topping 50 percent in the averages of their latest unfavorability polls, it’s evident a significant portion of the population isn’t thrilled about the options put forth by the two major parties. For those who are wholeheartedly against Trump, but also want to represent their opinion that the United States’ two-party system isn’t working, that puts them in a difficult position: Protest vote for Jill Stein, Gary Johnson or some other relative unknown and risk inadvertently helping Trump—or reluctantly vote for Clinton.
Complemented by the rise of social media and Internet platforms, that’s where vote trading comes back into play.
“As Republicans voting for Clinton, we had something of a journey to get to ‘country before party,’” says John Stubbs of his and Ricardo Reyes’ path to co-founding Trump Traders. That poses a particularly big dilemma for third-party voters in swing states. “If you for for anyone other than Clinton or Trump, you are letting someone else decide the election. Maybe you think Clinton is a two, but Trump is a negative 11, and there is a difference.”
Seeking to provide options for people who want their protest votes to be heard while barring Trump from the Oval Office, Stubbs and Reyes launched Trump Traders, which runs through Facebook by pairing a voter from a swing state and a voter from a safe state. Within the past few weeks, Stubbs says they’ve connected 12,000 participants, with more than half of those voters signing on since last Friday.
Still, feedback has been mixed for vote-trading organizers. Steven Buss, who founded Vote Swap in September when the race appeared to be tightening, says there was a misconception—largely leveled at him from Trump supporters—that he is trying to rig the vote.
“There’s no exchange of money. There’s no coercion. It’s just facilitating the pairing of two people who want to maximize the value of their vote,” he tells me. Take, for instance, the scenario where a Johnson supporter in the swing state of Florida teams up with a Clinton supporter in California, which is all but a sure-win for Clinton. Buss says that is still moving the Libertarian party toward the benchmark goal of earning 5 percent of the national votes—which would ensure federal funding for the party in future elections—while giving Clinton a vital vote in Florida. As an ideal result, Clinton wins the presidency, the Libertarian party gets funding and, “of course, Trump loses.”
So, what’s the catch? Even though there are some safeguards instituted by the major vote-trading organizers, they essentially operate on an honor system.
In the case of Trump Traders, interested traders can chat with each other on Facebook—and decide for themselves if their partner seems legitimately committed to the swap. Even then, Stubbs says there is no binding contract. “It’s simply two voters talking to each other about how they think the other one should vote,” he says. He adds it helps that all supposedly have the same goal: “What do Stein supporters, Johnson supporters and Republicans for Clinton have in common? Trump is the dead last worst option.”
With Vote Swap, Buss attempted to take it one step further by pairing people with their Facebook friends or friends of friends. “The hope is that the social pressure of not lying to your friends would increase the likelihood of people going through with their vote-swapping pledges,” he says, noting he now refers last-minute participants to organizations with better pairing power, such as Trump Traders.
For enthusiastic supporters of vote trading, such as Scott Aaronson, professor of computer science at the University of Texas at Austin, any potential apprehensions people may have are outweighed by the benefits of stopping Trump.
“The Electoral College has already been subverted from the purpose it served when the Founding Fathers set it up, and now just functions to enforce a tiered majority vote,” he says. “Until the U.S. manages to pass a constitutional amendment to fix this situation, I see absolutely no reason for individuals not to use their own voting power to engage in a moral trade.”
And, besides, Aaronson argues there really is nothing more democratic than vote trading.
“For better or worse, moral trade is exactly what the senators and congresspeople we elect do every day,” he says. “So why shouldn’t ordinary people be able to do the same?”