It's a simple, sweet and delightfully counter-intuitive solution to the Constitution's electoral puzzle. Green voters in the conservative, rural West could swing the presidential election to Al Gore.
In a uniquely American twist, westerners are supporting their candidate by voting for someone else. That's right, a vote for Ralph Nader in Butte, Boise or Bismarck could tip this razor-close election to Al Gore. Welcome to the first Internet election, where tactical voting by cyber-savvy conservationists could elect Gore and, simultaneously, boost Ralph Nader into the political mainstream.
Here's how it works: Torn progressives in Bush-leaning western states swap votes with their kin in swing states teetering between Gore and Bush. Call them Nader traders. Their goal: To maximize the percentage of the popular vote that Nader receives, yet allow Gore to win the national election.
In an electronic flurry this week, progressives in Bush-leaning Montana and Colorado connected with like-minded voters in the swing states of Oregon and New Mexico. Soccer moms in Fort Collins swapped e-mails with dishwashers in Seattle, and college students in Reno introduced themselves to musicians in Austin.
Myself, I hooked up electronically with a young attorney in Ohio. He agreed to switch his vote from Nader to Gore in closely contested Ohio if I would switch from Gore to Nader in solid-Bush Montana. We were introduced through www.voteswap2000.com.
To appreciate the elegance of the new e-politics, recall how the Constitution's electoral college system works. When we vote for president, we actually select a statewide slate of electors committed to their political party's nominee. The winner of the popular vote in each state receives all the electoral votes for that state. Nationwide, only 538 electors will actually select the next president on Dec. 18.
Because of this archaic system of indirect democracy, millions of Gore ballots cast in conservative western states won't generate a single electoral vote. Those Gore votes aren't worth a dime. On the other hand, Gov. Bush currently leads in eco-friendly Oregon and Wisconsin, largely because Nader has siphoned thousands of green votes from Gore. In swing states, a vote for Nader truly is a vote for Bush.
Hence, the emergence through the Internet of a tactical interstate alliance, which is endorsed by no political party. Nadertrader.com was launched last week by a few Naderites and their Gore-supporting friends who agreed they don't want their split vote to hand the election to Bush. Neither, however, did they want to reduce Nader's national tally of individual votes. Five percent of the popular vote will qualify the Green Party for federal matching funds in 2004.
Although some voters are squeamish about bartering ballots, it's perfectly legal. While it's not legal to sell your vote, there is no law against an informal e-mail chat with a friend or stranger in which no money changes hands. In fact, tactical voting is a rational attempt to maximize the value of your ballot in an indirect democracy.
And there's nothing Bush supporters can do to sabotage the Nader traders. By posing as either a Gore supporter in a Bush state or a Naderite in a swing state, Bush voters can only help one or the other campaign without providing a single electoral advantage to Gov. Bush.
The Nader trader scheme, however, has attracted suspicion from some Democrats who don't want Nader to gain a toehold in the electoral process and threaten the two-party duopoly. They simply ask Nader to throw in the towel.
On the other hand, some Naderites are scornful of anything that helps Al Gore. Both major parties are corrupted by corporate money, they believe, wedded to an unsustainable economy rooted in overconsumption and personal debt. Nader traders are Nader traitors, they howl.
But we live in a politically messy world. I see Voteswap2000.com as an ingenious antidote to the bit role that the environment typically plays in national elections and a pragmatic strategy to block a Bush victory next week.
So rise up you progressives in Wyoming, you treehuggers in Utah, you mountain climbers in Idaho. Flex your political muscle and hop on the Web. You, too, can be a Nader trader for Gore.
Steve Thompson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (www.hcn.org). He lives in Whitefish, Mont.