the ethics of vote swaps

David Iaconangelo writes, “this year is seeing a resurgence of vote-swap websites and apps that pair voters for a major-party candidate – in most cases, Democrats in blue states – with a third-party supporter living in a swing state. … Some find the tactic a little unsettling, even if it isn’t illegal or clearly unethical. ‘I’m a little conflicted,’ says Peter Levine, a political philosopher and associate dean at Tufts University’s College of Civic Life.”

As I say in the article, you’re not supposed to do anything as a quid pro quo for your vote. Swapping would seem to violate that principle. “On the other hand, the president is a national political figure, meaning the allocation of one’s vote across state lines might be considered a matter of personal choice. And if there’s no enforcement involved …, the deal might be little more than two people talking about how they’re going to vote, since the ballot is secret, anyway.”

I also note in the piece that we may have two different theories of what a vote is. On one view, it’s an instrument for getting the outcome you want. The point of our voting laws should be to ensure that everyone has the same influence. The Electoral College introduces inequality because only some states are competitive. If you can coordinate with someone in a different state to remove that obstacle, you are using your instrument more effectively.

On a different view, voting is partly an expressive civic act. Your vote won’t make a tangible difference in a presidential election anyway (with or without the Electoral College). But your vote is one way for you to belong to a community that governs itself–and not only by voting. You should vote in the community that you belong to.

I have a expressed a similarly nuanced opinion about where you should vote if you have a legal right to choose. For example, I support the right of college students to decide whether their residence is their college or their family’s home for the purpose of voting. However, it’s not obvious to me that they should (ethically) make that choice by deciding where their vote will count the most. Quite honestly, the differential impact of where you cast your single vote in a presidential race is microscopic. I think you should decide where you are a citizen in the full sense, and vote there.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.