ACLU steps in on vote-swapping sites issue

The Associated Press
Friday November 03, 2000


LOS ANGELES — The American Civil Liberties Union on Thursday said it will seek a temporary restraining order to prevent Secretary of State Bill Jones from shutting down vote-swapping Web sites. 

Three sites voluntarily shut down this week after Jones told one of the operators they were violating state election laws. The ACLU, however, said the practice constitutes free speech and probably wouldn’t have been challenged if promoted through a more traditional medium such as newspaper or radio. 

“The ACLU will not allow the Internet to become the First Amendment punching bag for every government official,” said Peter Eliasberg, staff attorney for the ACLU of Southern California. 

The sites have turned up in recent weeks. Many are aimed at supporters of Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader, seen as a threat to siphon votes from Democrat Al Gore. Democrats fear those voters could decide the election in states that are too close to call. 

The Web sites allow users to discuss a strategy called vote-swapping. 

A Nader supporter in a hotly contested state, for example, would contact a Gore supporter in a state that is considered safe for Republican George W. Bush. The Nader supporter would agree to vote for Gore in exchange for the Gore backer casting a vote for Nader. 

The online barter could allow Gore to win some swing states while giving the Green Party the 5 percent of the national vote it needs to gain federal campaign money in 2004. 

The creators of one such site, www.voteswap2000.com, said they were contacted by Jones’ office and told they were violating state law. The site remained closed on Thursday. 

Jones’ office said the state Election Code prohibits offering payment or any other “valuable consideration” to voters. 

“What they were doing was brokering the exchange of votes,” Secretary of State spokesman Shad Balch said. “You can’t swap your vote. It’s not a commodity. This constitutes fraud.” 

The ACLU said discussing or agreeing to a voting strategy is different from offering or receiving payment for a vote. The sites’ political message “qualifies them for the highest level of protection under the First Amendment...,” Eliasberg said. 

Erwin Chemerinsky, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Southern California, also disagrees with Jones’ interpretation of the law. 

“What’s going on at these sites isn’t like some kind of contract. No one is giving up their vote,” he said. “All that is going on is free speech.” 

Named as plaintiffs will be the operators of www.voteexchange2000.com, as well as several people who attempted to access the vote-swapping sites but found they were shut down. 

“I’m here because I believe in my First Amendment right and my rights to discuss with whomever I want about political issues that affect me,” said Scott W. Tenley, a University of California, Los Angeles law student. 


On the Net: 

ACLU: www.aclu.org 

Secretary of State: www.ss.ca.gov