November 27, 2000 5:35 PM PST

ACLU files suit favoring vote-swapping sites

A civil rights legal team is seeking a court order that would bar California's secretary of state from threatening to shutter vote-swapping Web sites, arguing the situation needs to be dealt with for future elections.

American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawyers in Los Angeles, along with legal scholars Alan Dershowitz and Jamin Raskin, who are serving as co-counsels in the case, filed a federal lawsuit Monday afternoon on behalf of a San Francisco Webmaster who aborted his online vote-swapping services just weeks before the presidential election.

Vote-swapping sites mushroomed during the presidential campaign as polls showed Green Party candidate Ralph Nader closing in on the 5 percent returns required to receive federal matching of campaign funds--threatening Vice President Al Gore's lead in a handful of closely contested states, including Florida. The idea was to get Nader supporters to vote for Gore in battleground states in exchange for Nader votes from Democrats in other states.

In the end, neither goal appears to have been met: Nader did not win 5 percent of the popular vote, and a close race has thrown Florida into a recount quagmire, with the outlook favoring Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

Despite questions about Want election news? Get it here their effectiveness, vote-swapping sites were met with a zero-tolerance policy in California.

Webmaster Alan Porter closed after learning that Secretary of State William Jones was cracking down on vote-trading operations, threatening to pursue criminal action.

Porter said he was never actually contacted by Jones' office but had heard from a sister site about the crackdown.

"It wasn't much of a jump to realize that we would be targeted next," Porter said Monday.

On the eve of Election Day, the ACLU lost its bid for a restraining order against Jones' office in a case involving another vote-swapping site, Voteswap 2000.

"Now we want to set a legal precedent to deal with the issue once and for all," said Porter, who has already bought the "Votexchange2004" domain name.

Representatives of the secretary of state's office could not immediately be reached for comment.

Porter said his site was a hit, but it was live for only five days before election officials began cracking down on similar sites.

Jones' office argued that inducing a person to vote one way or another is a violation of California election laws, an offense that carries a maximum three years in prison.

The ACLU calls the online arrangements protected speech.

"The concept of matching like-minded voters in cyberspace for the purpose of creating a common voting strategy is both revolutionary and completely in line with freedoms set forth in our constitution," ACLU staff attorney Peter Eliasberg said in a statement. "Luddites who think they can stop this exercise of our fundamental freedoms of association and speech will discover that efforts to censor Internet speech and disband cybercommunities will not be tolerated."


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