January 05, 2001, 1:19 PM — Americans who worry that a strong showing by the Green Party's Ralph Nader will help put Texas Gov. George W. Bush in the White House continue to swarm "vote exchange" Web sites, even as a federal judge has dealt the "Nader Trader" movement a setback.
The American Civil Liberties Union, after declaring it "would not allow the Internet to become the First Amendment punching bag," lost Round 1 of its battle for individual rights when U.S. Central District Judge Robert Kelleher issued a one-sentence order denying the ACLU's bid for a temporary restraining order against California Secretary of State Bill Jones. It was Jones' threats to prosecute creators of Voteswap2000.com that resulted in the shuttering of that site and another, Votexchange.com.
"We are disappointed," ACLU staff attorney Peter Eliasberg said. "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."
Jones' actions, Eliasberg said, "could threaten our ability to exercise our constitutionally guaranteed freedoms on the Internet. The issue is not yet settled. We will pursue this case."
Heralded as a new forum for political organizing and participation, the vote-swap sites promote an interstate exchange of pledges between Nader supporters in critical swing states and supporters of Democratic candidate Al Gore in Republican and Democratic strongholds. The strategy is designed to help Gore win the Electoral College while at the same time helping Nader's Green Party achieve its goal of getting 5% of the popular vote, the threshold required to qualify for federal matching campaign funds in 2004.
Several sites that advocate the strategy -- and, in some cases, succeed in matching voters in different states -- have been created recently, apparently inspiring thousands of people to exchange pledges. But Jones' office sent a chill through that practice when it warned Voteswap2000's founders that their operation violated California's election code, which prohibits offering payment or any other "valuable consideration" to people to influence their votes.
In this case, William Wood, Jones' chief counsel, said the "valuable consideration" is the pledged quid pro quo. Even such promises exchanged between spouses would be illegal, he said. Moreover, Wood said, Web operations are especially vulnerable to exploitation of well-meaning voters.