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Could the rise of 'vote swap' apps make the electoral college irrelevant?

Swapping ballots with voter in other states might be ethically fraught. But it's also a way of registering discontent with the electoral college.

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    An early ballot envelope is held at town hall in North Andover, Mass., on Monday.
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Third-party supporters: you can get your vote reappraised. That’s if you live in the right kind of state.

This year is seeing a resurgence of vote-swap websites and apps that pair voters for a major-party candidate – in most cases, Democrats in blue states – with a third-party supporter living in a swing state. For example, a Floridian who likes Jill Stein or Gary Johnson could agree to vote for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton on Election Day if a blue state voter would vote for that third-party candidate. In other cases, another voter can get involved, so the swing-state voter can get two ballots of his choice in exchange for his single one. For some, ballot swapping represents a loophole in the electoral college system that enhances the value of the popular vote.

Amit Kumar, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, says more than 10,000 people have searched for a vote swap through his #NeverTrump app since its launch, according to USA Today. John Stubbs, the co-founder of Republicans for Clinton 2016, which launched the website Trump Traders, told the paper that more than 1,000 had signed up.

Similar websites debuted in 2000, when Ralph Nader supporters sought to barter with Democrats in order to keep George W. Bush out of the White House while still voting for their guy. And enmity toward Republican presidential Donald Trump (and to a lesser extent, Mrs. Clinton) has certainly been the prime reason for a revival. 

But it also seems to shine a light on the unpopularity of the electoral college, as well as the ethical dilemma of whether it’s justified to game the system this way.

In surveys dating back to 1966, Gallup noted in 2000, runaway majorities of Americans have said they would do away with the electoral college if given the chance. Subsequent surveys have shown much the same; in 2013, the date of the last poll, 63 percent of Americans said they would vote for a reform that staked the election on the popular vote.

Still, some find the tactic a little unsettling, even if it isn’t illegal or clearly unethical.

“I’m a little conflicted,” says Peter Levine, a political philosopher and associate dean at Tufts University’s College of Civic Life.

On one hand, Dr. Levine tells The Christian Science Monitor, you’re not supposed to do anything in exchange for your vote. And if the two people taking part in the trade are bound to it significantly, that might border on coercion.

On the other hand, the president is a national political figure, meaning the allocation of one’s vote across state lines might be considered a matter of personal choice. And if there’s no enforcement involved, he adds, the deal might be little more than two people talking about how they’re going to vote, since the ballot is secret, anyway. 

“There’s a philosophical uncertainty about what the vote means,” he says. One view is that it’s just a mechanism for getting the candidate you want, so if you swap, you’re playing the game the best way.”

“Another view is that it’s partly a symbolic action by a citizen in his or her own community.... Do I have the right to influence the election in a different jurisdiction than the one I’m living in?”

In 2000, the California secretary of State sent notice to two different websites that their version of vote-trading violated state law, and ordered them to shut it down, though others remained running. Courts probed those cases in subsequent years, culminating in a 2007 appeals court finding that the sites were legal.

One key point is that these kinds of agreements are inherently unenforceable, given the secret ballot,” University of California-Irvine law professor and political scientist Rick Hasen told The New York Times in September. “You might tell me you are Stein supporter in Ohio who would vote for Clinton if I would vote for Stein, but you could be someone sitting in another country, or a Stein supporter in Ohio who still plans to vote for Stein.

But other courts could revisit the question, he added.

“It is quite possible that another court would agree with the dissenters should the issue arise again.”

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