A month ago, Amit Kumar sat in his office, nervously watching the Trump/Clinton polls intersect.
As a Clinton supporter in deeply blue state, the Silicon Valley-based entrepreneur knew his vote wouldn’t do much to affect the outcome. He also knew that elsewhere in the country — particularly in the crucially important swing states — large numbers of third-party votes were tightening the race. Kumar realized that the best way he could help was by getting these third-party swing state residents to vote for Clinton, while still being able to show support for their original candidates.
His solution: “Let them trade votes.”
Kumar launched #NeverTrump — a “marketplace” app where third-partiers in swing states can swap candidates with Clinton supporters in safe states.
This agreement, called vote trading or pairing, is a small but swiftly growing movement playing out across the United States. And at the last minute, it’s shifting hundreds — if not thousands — of third-party votes to Clinton.
How vote trading works
The NeverTrump platform is simple.
When you initiate the app, a bot asks you a series of questions to determine your location and political preferences:
Once completed, it grants you access to a chatroom where hundreds of Clinton voters in “safe” states propose trades with Jill Stein, Gary Johnson, and Evan McMullin voters in swing states:
Let’s take an example from above: the Jill Stein supporter from Ohio, looking to “feel better about voting for the master of corruption.”
This Stein supporter, Nicholas, knows he lives in a crucial swing state where Trump is currently leading the polls. He cannot bear the thought of Trump winning his state, yet he also deeply supports Stein — so he doesn’t want to outright vote for Clinton and give up his representation.
So Nicholas joins #NeverTrump, finds Alex — a Clinton voter in California (where Clinton is 99.9 percent likely to win) — and proposes a trade of candidates.
From here, it is an “honor system”: On Election Day, it is understood that Nicholas will vote for Clinton and Alex will vote for Stein. (In some states, a ballot selfie can serve as proof.) Both voters’ voices are heard, but the Clinton vote gets cast in the more important state.
A brief history of vote trading
Sixteen years ago, during the close presidential race between George W. Bush and Al Gore, constitutional law professor James Raskin noticed a quandary: Thousands of Gore voters were “trapped” in Republican-controlled states where their votes were useless. Meanwhile, thousands of Nader supporters in swing states wanted to vote third-party, but also feared a Bush presidency.
In a Slate article titled “Nader’s Traders,” Raskin proposed a rather odd solution: “vote-swapping” — or encouraging Gore Democrats in safe states to trade votes with Nader supporters in swing states.
Shortly after the article was published, a number of vote trading websites popped up online — VoteSwap2000.com, NaderTrader.com, TradeVotes.com, VoteExchange2000.com. The trend gained steam, and a reported 35,000 people across the United States used the sites to meet fellow voters, engage in discussions, and form verbal candidate swap agreements.
But the legality of vote trading soon came into question.
Following a succession of threat letters from attorneys general in five states, the websites were shut down. The argument against these vote trading sites rested in a fairly universal tenet in state election codes: It is illegal to trade a vote for “any money, gift, service, or other valuable consideration.”
Though a small vote trading effort matching Kerry and Nader voters popped up during the 2004 election, the practice remained relatively dormant until 2016.
Vote trading is not “rigged”
Today, Raskin, who is now a state senator running for Congress, says vote trading is “perfectly legal” — largely thanks to a 2007 court case.
In the aftermath of the 2000 election, one of the vote trading sites, VoteSwap2000.com, brought a suit before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The resulting case, Porter v. Bowen, established vote trading as “clearly protected by the First Amendment.” To this day, it is the only authoritative legal case on record on the topic.
“Vote trading is simply people talking about how they are going to cast their vote — how to form the more effective coalition to accomplish mutual purposes,” says Raskin. “That’s what a political party is! If vote trading is illegal, then political parties are illegal.”
As Raskin notes, vote trading platforms like #NeverTrump merely provide voters with an opportunity to communicate with each other. If, during the course of conversation, two voters decide to change their minds for mutual benefit, that is merely an acknowledgement that our voting system — enslaved to the Electoral College — encourages strategic action.
“Vote trading is just people deciding how they’re going to vote, based on forming a strategic political alliance,” says Raskin. “In some sense, it is the principal activity of Democracy.”
Despite its constitutionally protected legality, vote trading is drawing ire from the “rigged election” crowd.
“I don’t see how trading a vote is any better than bribery,” says Katie Brown, an undecided voter from Virginia. In Brown’s estimation, vote trading platforms like #NeverTrump are akin to vote buying schemes — when voters are paid (either with a service or money) to vote a certain way.
Some vote traders have experienced this backlash directly.
After swapping with a Clinton supporter from New Jersey, third-party voter Anlin Wang, of Pennsylvania, posted about her experience on Facebook. It immediately attracted concern from Trump supporters:
The Trump campaign did not respond to our request for a comment on vote trading — though in the past, the Republican candidate has cited colluding media, dishonest pollsters, and dead people as proof of a “rigged” election.
While there is some truth to certain aspects of the election being unfair, vote trading is, at its root, just two voters talking to each other and changing their minds. No money is exchanged. No services are exchanged. Nothing of redeemable value changes hands.
Voters are willingly engaging in this process, united around one thing: a cross-party distaste for the Republican candidate.
The third-party rationale for trading: “Trump is terrifying”
For Jason Haner, a libertarian from Pennsylvania, Gary Johnson was a no-brainer pick for the next POTUS. But a few weeks ago, the young voter had a moral dilemma.
“I wanted my voice to be heard, but I also knew there was a risk of Trump being elected if I voted for my candidate in a swing state,” he tells me. “So I decided to trade.”
Through #NeverTrump, Haner met a Clinton supporter in California. After briefly chatting, the two men came to an agreement: In the name of defeating Trump, Haner would vote for Clinton in Pennsylvania (a crucial swing state), and the other man would vote for Stein in California (a blue state where Clinton is projected to win by massive margins).
Haner knows Johnson stands no chance to win the election, and realizes Clinton is “the lesser of two evils” — but he also wants to ensure that Johnson doesn’t take a hit on election night.
“The reason I checked this out was to still have my voice heard while preventing a really bad candidate from being elected,” he says. “But I also want my party to get one vote closer to the 5 percent popular vote to try to help them get government funding for the next election from the presidential election fund.”
Looking over the message board, plenty of others share similar reasons for trading votes:
But on these vote trading sites, third-party voters are kind of a rare breed. Far more common are the Clinton voters who flood the platforms en masse, eager to shift their votes into swing states.
Among them was Steve Friday, a Democrat from Texas.
After learning about #NeverTrump at the gym, Friday joined the platform and found a Stein voter in Colorado who was willing to trade. But as Colorado began to turn blue, the agreement was broken off. Friday tells me he tried to find another swing state voter, failed, and ended up voting early for Clinton in Texas.
“#NeverTrump is a marketplace — and as with any marketplace, there’s a balance,” says Kumar, the site’s founder. “There is always one side of the marketplace with more supply than demand. In this case, it happens to be Clinton voters.”
In response to this, other platforms have popped up, claiming to have “thousands of third-party voters signed up.”
Third-party swing state votes are worth double Clinton safe state votes
Over the past year, John Stubbs, a lifelong Republican and onetime adviser to the Bush administration, watched his party crumble.
“Over time, my feelings toward Trump evolved from amusement to frustration to deep concern to horror,” he says. “I started becoming dismayed with people who were against Trump but didn’t want to participate. They’d say, ‘I live in California! My vote doesn’t matter!’ That’s the same thing I heard from my friends in London before Brexit.”
“TrumpTraders is intended for people whose first choice isn’t Clinton — they’re voting for Stein, Johnson, and McMullin,” says Stubbs. “These are people who aren’t quite ready to outright vote for Clinton and give up their say, but they will vote for Clinton if it means their representation is still being counted somewhere.”
These voters, adds Stubbs, are “willing to put their country before their party” — but not without appropriate incentive.
Because the votes of third-party voters in swing states are “worth more,” TrumpTraders offers a two-for-one trade. A Stein voter in Ohio who decides to trade her vote, for instance, will get matched with two Clinton supporters in safe states — both of whom will agree to vote for Stein in return for her one Ohio Clinton vote.
A rebellion against America’s “‘broken” two-party system
In particularly close swing state races, like Ohio, where Trump leads Clinton by 2.5 points and third-partiers make up 4 percent of the vote, these sites could theoretically impact the vote. During the 2000 election, an estimated 35,000 people traded votes; James Raskin predicted that it would’ve only taken 65,000 more to potentially shift the outcome.
Collectively, the founders of TrumpTraders.com and #NeverTrump tell me they’ve had more than 20,000 users join their vote trading platforms this election cycle. Admittedly, 2016 is not 2000: We’re looking at a much larger spread, and it is unlikely that these platforms will have a visible impact on the race.
But vote trading has a larger significance: It serves as a way to rebel against America’s “broken” two-party system.
Owen Zoll, an 18-year-old Stein supporter from Colorado who recently traded votes with a Clinton supporter from New York, tells me the vote trading community is “optimistic” about America’s political future.
“People who use this app are indicative of a growing movement to break the two-party system in the United States — to introduce a more inclusive, representative model, with a more popular vote,” he writes in an email. “That’s the dream!”