How the 'Net might get Kerry elected

They aren't calling it "vote swapping" this time around, having prudently decided that "vote pairing" will be more palatable for the squeamish who cling to the myth that one-man-one-vote applies to our presidential elections.

The practice, unthinkable prior to the ubiquitous Internet, seeks to match supporters of Democratic Sen. John Kerry who live in states where the outcome is all but preordained - think Texas and Massachusetts - with backers of Green Party candidate David Cobb and Nihilist Party candidate Ralph Nader who live in hotly contested states such as Florida and Ohio. The informal arrangement between these Web buddies will be simple: The Cobb or Nader supporter agrees to vote for Kerry where that vote might matter in exchange for the Kerry supporter agreeing to vote for Cobb or Nader where doing so definitely won't. Most important is that the agreement advances their mutual goal of denying President Bush a second term.

They'll also be thumbing their noses at the Electoral College, which should have been thumbed out of existence long before the sad spectacle that was swearing in a president who lost the election by a half-million votes.

You might recall that during the waning days of the 2000 campaign, a smattering of these "pairing" sites popped up across the 'Net, including NaderTrader.org, WinWincampaign.org, Voteexchange2000.com, voteexchange.org and votetrader.org. The sites attracted a few days' worth of media debate, the wrath of Republican elections officials, and about 36,000 individuals who expressed their willingness to vote tactically through a gentleman's agreement. (What they actually did in the booth is anybody's guess, of course.)

Well, the political matchmakers are at it again, only this time they have pooled their resources into a single site - www.votepair.org - that went live last week. They've had four years to plot strategy - tactical, technical, legal and marketing - and, according to the organizers I spoke with, they are hunkered down for a raucous battle against those who object to the pairing practice and/or support the president.

First things first: Could Web-based vote-pairing on behalf of Kerry actually swing the election in his favor where it fell short for Al Gore?

Absolutely. After all the flying legal briefs had settled in 2000, Florida's 27 electoral votes were assigned to Bush on the basis of about 500 ballots, give or take a hanging chad; New Mexico's five electoral votes went to Gore by a similarly slim margin. Organizers of VotePair say 1,400 Floridians participated in the swapping sites four years ago. Had 2,000 done so, President Gore might be running for re-election. Given the head start on this year's pairing effort vs. four years ago - and the immense nationwide interest in this race - it's hard to imagine there won't be a far greater number of pairing participants this time around.

Web site security is a concern, of course, and organizers are understandably reluctant to discuss their defenses in detail . . . they insist they have it covered.

As for non-technical monkeying with the movement? These are not likely to be effective. Yes, Bush backers could fraudulently register on the site as either Kerry partisans or Nader/Cobb supporters, but doing so will accomplish nothing of consequence (see VotePair's FAQ page for a full explanation).

Legal challenges are all but certain, too, says Mark Randazza, a First Amendment lawyer in Florida who's advising VotePair. Those mounted four years ago managed to scare off a few of the political matchmakers, but the challenges established no legal precedents for the simple reason that the practice is perfectly legal. Expect more huffing and puffing from Republican election officials, but bluster alone won't get the organizers to back down this time.

"There are enough attorneys like myself who are spoiling for a fight on this issue," Randazza says.

And a fight they will get.

Feel free to pair your opinion with this address: buzz@nww.com.

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.