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Judge rejects request to stop vote-swap crackdown

A federal judge refuses to stop California's secretary of state from clamping down on vote-swapping sites that have recently cropped up on the Internet.

A federal judge Monday refused to stop California's secretary of state from clamping down on vote-swapping sites that have recently cropped up on the Internet.

Lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union had sought a temporary restraining order against Secretary of State William Jones, arguing that his office was trying to shutter political free speech.

U.S. District Judge Robert Kelleher denied that request Monday evening without elaborating in his ruling.

"We are disappointed," Peter Eliasberg, staff attorney for ACLU's Los Angeles office, said in a statement. "In its one-sentence order denying the TRO, the court has failed to grapple with the substantive free-speech and free-association issues involved in the closure of Web sites devoted to matching like-minded voters with one another for the purpose of discussing politics and voting strategies."

Alfie Charles, Jones' spokesman, said the judge "obviously agreed that votes are not to be bought, sold or traded for money, jobs or other votes."

Vote-swap sites first appeared a few weeks ago, after polls showed that Green Party candidate Ralph Nader was pulling votes away from Democrat Al Gore in numbers that could hand the election to Republican George W. Bush. The sites suggest that Nader supporters who live in a battleground state trade votes with people in states where Democrats or Republicans have a solid lead.

The point of the agreement is to clinch 5 percent of the popular vote for Nader so that the Green Party can get federal matching funds for the 2004 presidential election, while at the same time protecting Gore.

Last week, Jones successfully shuttered three such Web sites, citing violation of election laws. The law states that a person cannot be induced to vote one way or another in exchange for something of value. Election officials interpreted the "something of value" phrase to include other votes. Each violation carries a maximum three-year prison term.

Political attorneys in Sacramento criticized Jones' interpretation of the law.

But Charles said only sites that had the technology to match voters from different states were targeted. Those that merely suggested a vote-swapping deal were left untouched.

"We found those sites that suggested trading votes distasteful, but they were not illegal," Charles said.

The ACLU vowed to appeal Monday's ruling.