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Should voters be barred from trading votes?

With just six days before the presidential election, regulators may have a hard time shuttering online vote swapping, a practice that has taken hold in light of the tight race.

With just six days before the presidential election, regulators may have a hard time shuttering online vote swapping, a practice that has taken hold recently in light of the tight race between Al Gore and George W. Bush.

Vote swaps are agreements between two parties from different states to vote for either Gore or Green Party candidate Ralph Nader. The online arrangements are causing headaches for California election officials, but whether the practice is unlawful remains up for debate, as no exchange of money occurs.

Legal disclaimers on some of the vote exchanges describe the Web sites as akin to matchmaking services. Many even warn participants to avoid offering or taking money in exchange for a vote, a clear violation of election laws.

"Under federal law, the key to something being illegal is a pecuniary inducement to stimulate voting," a Justice Department official said, reading a law that was enacted in 1973. "In other words, money."

Federal law aside, each state dictates its own election rules. In California, trading votes is apparently unlawful. On Monday, Secretary of State Bill Jones threatened to prosecute the Web operator of Los Angeles-based Voteswap 2000. By nightfall, the operator had disabled the site.

That same night, Votexchange2000.com of San Francisco closed its operation for fear of criminal repercussions. Organizers for both sites, however, are looking to relocate headquarters either overseas or to another state with more lenient laws.

"The basic underpinnings of democracy is that each person votes their conscience," said Alfie Charles, spokesman for the state secretary. "It's illegal to get something of value in exchange for your vote."

The state secretary is arguing that inducing a person to vote one way or another is a violation of California election laws.

Political attorneys in Sacramento are calling Jones' interpretation of the law "colorful" and politically motivated.

"I doubt it will hold up in court," said attorney Brian Maas of Sacramento. "With this action coming so close to the election, it's hard to divorce political motivation. This is a Republican Secretary of State helping out Bush."

American Civil Liberties Union lawyers are looking into the matter.

The vote swap sites appeared shortly after reports that Nader could cost Gore the overall election.

The way it works is a Nader supporter who lives in a state where the race between Gore and Bush is neck and neck can swap votes with someone in a state where the Democrats or Republicans have a solid lead. So the Nader supporter chooses Gore for president on the promise that the voter on the other end of the agreement will check Nader on the ballot.

The point of the swapping is to get Gore elected and at the same time win Nader five percentage points of the popular vote so the Green Party can get federal matching funds for the 2004 presidential election.

At least seven sites have appeared on the Net in the past several weeks, including Nader Trader, VoteExchange.com, WinWin Campaign, VoteExchange.org and Winchell's Nader Trader.

Tech election 2000
"It's a great idea for Gore and Nader supporters who have at least some interest in getting Gore elected," said Scott Aaronson, a University of California at Berkeley computer science graduate student who supports the Nader vote trading efforts. "It works as long as one doesn't view voting as an act of moral expression but rather as something strategic."

None of the sites recommends that Californians vote for Nader. The NaderTrader Web site states: "Gore voters in California should not switch their votes to Nader under any circumstances. California voters interested in Nader should contact friends and family in Bush-safe states. Move those Nader votes down to Texas where they won't hurt anybody!"

It is unclear how many people have legitimately participated in trading votes, but election officials say they will prosecute those who engage in the practice.

While the legal line is blurred when it comes to trading votes on a promise, it is quite clear if Americans try to turn a profit. That is why authorities have cracked down on auction sites.

Votes on eBay and Yahoo auction blocks over the summer were promptly brought to a halt. Just recently, Illinois election commissioners won an injunction against one Web site, Voteauction.com, that was purportedly selling votes to the highest bidders. The site shut down but popped back up under a new Web address operated from outside the United States.

Another hoax making its way around the Net involves an official-sounding email announcing an election schedule change. Republicans, it says, are to vote on Election Day Tuesday, and Democrats should cast their ballots the following day.

"I'm sure, I hope, people know that's a prank," Charles said.

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