The 2000 US Presidential Election, as most of us who were around for it will recall, was a brutal affair. For the plurality of American voters, it was also pretty disappointing as Bush v. Gore was a dramatic way to end a campaign. Fingerpointing followed, centered on the state of Florida's role. Many electile dysfunction jokes followed the failure of America's Wang to produce a credible delegation to the Electoral College. Behind the butterfly ballots, old Jewish voters punting en masse for Pat Buchanan, and one candidate's brother's crony running the whole disaster, an even shadier group operated nationwide on the fringes of political decency.
Why would anyone want to trade a Nader (and what the devil's a Nader anyway)?
From the peculiar nature of the electoral system, the willingness of many left-leaning voters to do what it took to elect Al Gore, and the existence of two party bases that were ready to cooperate even though they were competing for the same voters, arose a breed of voter that had not been seen before and has not been seen since: the Nader Trader.
The Nader Trader came in two varieties: The first was followers of the Green Party and supporters of Ralph Nader's candidacy for president. Their aim was to help their candidate reach the 5% threshhold that would make the party eligible for federal funding. The others were Democrats who wanted to boost vice president Gore's chances of being elected president. So they traded votes. Although no statistics exist, it should be expected that the demographics of the group were not too far removed from the general American internet population of the time so it's a fair guess that your average Nader Trader was a youngish, white, computer-literate, and civic-minded male.
All this trading was facilitated by about half a dozen vote-swapping sites that brought together voters around the country. Voters in "safe" states, either Republican or Democratic, generally believed that their vote was of of little consequence in that state but could make an impact in a swing state. Nader voters were happy to get any vote, anywhere. Of the major party candidates, they also preferred Gore over the other candidate by a pretty wide margin. The swapping sites fostered an informal alliance between Nader voters in swing states and Democrats in safe states. One Nader voter would promise to cast of a vote for Gore in a swing state like New Mexico or Iowa. In exchange, a Gore supporter would promise to cast a vote for Nader in a safe state like New York or Utah.
The vote swapping sites only lasted for about a month since none existed before October and all of them put together accounted for a very small number of vote trade promises--probably in the low to mid five digits. However, as word of mouth and news outlets spread the word about Nader Trading, the existence of these sites inspired people to enter into informal agreements with friends or family to exchange votes in the same way. As there is no way of measuring the number of voters who Nader traded outside the vote swapping sites, so the actual impact of these sites will probably never be known. I'm not saying that we took part in it or who did what but I do have the near certainty that a vote cast in Kansas for Nader had a reciprocal vote for Gore in Tennessee, and that our household was somehow involved in it without any web site brokering the deal.
Was that sort of chicanery legal?
The legality of trading schemes was challenged in Oregon and in California. In California, just days before election day, Secretary of State Jones shut down a site called Voteswap2000.com, accusing it of facilitating voter fraud. News of the cease-and-desist frightened one of the other web site operators into shutting down, too. If there was a question about parties being involved in the vote swapping, this reaction suggests that the web sites were operated by individuals and did not enjoy the support of party machines and their legions of lawyers.
The end of the Nader Trading saga came in 2007, when the Appeals Court for the Ninth Circuit decided Porter v. Bowen (496 F.3d 1009, 1012 (9th Cir. 2007)) after the vote swappers decided to pursue the matter further. The court effectively ruled in favour of the legality of vote swapping sites. Porter went to court as a First Amendment case, arguing that vote swapping was an exchange of ideas and could not fall afoul of any statute prohibiting vote trading because there were no material considerations involved, nor were any of the trading participants able to have more than the other party's promise to vote in a particular manner.
The legacy of the Nader Trader
The legacy of Nader trading seems to be minimal as the electorate's memory is short even when it comes to its own role in the conclusion of a campaign. The absence of precedent and the failure of a similar movement to appear in the 2004 or 2008 elections suggests that Nader Trading should be considered a short-lived fad. Of course, after the Florida fiasco no self-respecting Democrat was about to make a deal with this particular devil again. However, should a suitable climate show up in a future election, it is not impossible that a movement with similar goals or methods may appear.
On the other hand, Joe Voter got the idea in 2000 that it's not only the major political parties who can play with the electoral system. It served as a proof of concept that it is theoretically possible to game the system from the bottom up, too, and that strategic voting can be made more palatable to the voter, if not to those not benefiting from it. That will be the legacy of Nader trading during the first election in
which the internet played a significant role.