Can Game Theory Save Voters From Ourselves (And Donald Trump)?

10/04/2016 04:30 am ET Updated Oct 06, 2016

Professor Scott Aaronson is one of the leading quantum computing theorists in the world. He is also the sole contributor of Shtetl-Optimized, a nerdy, funny and surprisingly popular blog, as well being the author of fascinating essays on free will, mathematical history, and quantum complexity theory.

However, Scott Aaronson first came into the media spotlight when, as a 19-year-old graduate student, he founded NaderTrading, a site that popularized the idea of using strategic voting to get votes for Al Gore while still fulfilling Green Party motives.

Now, in 2016 and faced with the prospect of a Trump election, he thinks it’s high time to bring back “votetrading” through sites like MAKEMINECOUNT.

Note: We created a mailing list for people interested in discussing and collaborating on the latest votetrading technologies. Please fill out this form if you’re interested!

Had we put just a little more sweat into [NaderTrading in 2000], we could’ve changed the outcome in Florida and thereby chang
Had we put just a little more sweat into [NaderTrading in 2000], we could’ve changed the outcome in Florida and thereby changed the course of the 21st century. So I [often ask myself] “how can I justify not spending much more time on it?”

Linch: Sixteen years ago you tried to get Nader and Gore voters to team up with NaderTrading. Sixteen years later, you're bringing the idea back - why now?"

Scott: Naturally, because of the urgent need to stop Trump from taking over the US.

I should add that NaderTrading wasn’t my idea--in 2000, I simply created a website to defend the practice, after others had already written about it and were engaging in it. In any case, we NaderTrading defenders were able to reach thousands of people, including in swing states like Florida, but it wasn’t quite enough. That, of course, is one of the reasons why we got eight years of George W. Bush.

Linch: What, in your own words, is “votetrading” and how could I use votetrading right now?

Scott: The idea is very simple. Supporters of a third-party candidate, like Gary Johnson, who live in a swing state like Ohio, should vote for Hillary Clinton (assuming they prefer her over Trump), but should also arrange for a Hillary supporter in a safe state like Texas or California to vote for Johnson on their behalf.

This helps to compensate for the insanity of the Electoral College--which, the way we use it today, neither makes sense nor bears any real relation to what the founding fathers intended. Because of the Electoral College, only a few states matter for presidential general elections, and the residents of other states are basically voiceless.

At the same time, vote-swapping also helps to compensate for Arrow’s Theorem, which all but guarantees irrationality in any election with three or more candidates. Why shouldn’t someone in Florida be able to cast a vote that expresses the information, “in an ideal world I’d support Johnson, but I also vastly prefer Clinton over Trump?”

Vote-swapping is simply a way to vote strategically. A court has ruled it completely legal (we’ll come to that later), and given how often politicians themselves trade votes with one another, I think it’s hard to argue it’s immoral.

I confess that my personal feeling is that, in this election, the overriding historical imperative is to stop Trump, so everyone should just vote for Clinton, full stop.

But I also think politics is the art of making mutually beneficial agreements with people who have very different moral systems from your own. So, rather than lecture Johnson voters in swing states about their “shortsightedness,” doesn’t it make far more sense for Hillary supporters to offer them something they want in return for what we want?

"I also think politics is the art of making mutually beneficial agreements with people who have very different moral systems
"I also think politics is the art of making mutually beneficial agreements with people who have very different moral systems from your own. So, rather than lecture Johnson voters in swing states about their “shortsightedness,” doesn’t it make far more sense for Hillary supporters to offer them something they want in return for what we want?"

Linch: Could I be arrested for using a site like Make Mine Count?

Scott: The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled, in 2007, that the answer is “no.”

When I set up my NaderTrading site in 2000, I did a bunch of print and radio interviews. I always wanted to talk about game theory, but the one question everyone wanted to ask was whether this was legal. Being a computer science grad student rather than a lawyer, my answer unfortunately came down in the end to saying that, if it wasn’t legal, it clearly should be! For example, because a private agreement between friends to trade votes seems self-evidently legal--but if so, then why should it matter if a website is involved? And also, while the laws against vote-selling vary by state, they all clearly talk about trading votes for tangible goods or services. They’re silent on trading votes for other votes, even though it would’ve been easy to ban that explicitly had that been the legislative intent.

OK, but those are just my arguments, not a court’s! When push came to shove, I could not assure vote-swappers at that time that they wouldn’t have to defend their activities in court.

And in fact, a few weeks before the 2000 election, the main vote-swapping site was shut down by the Republican attorney general of California. Other vote-swapping sites then voluntarily shut themselves down, afraid of being targeted as well. There were legal scholars at the time saying that the attorney general’s order would never hold up in court, but there was no time to litigate it, and his action might have changed the outcome of the election.

Until recently, I assumed that vote-swapping remained in the legal limbo where we’d left it in 2000. But then I learned something that completely changes the situation. In its 2007 Porter v. Bowen ruling, which stemmed from the 2000 NaderTrading shutdown, the Ninth Circuit says unequivocally that vote swapping is protected by the First Amendment. It’s not even material whether state election laws seek to ban vote swapping, since if they did, then Porter v. Bowen would hold those laws to be unconstitutional. So, going forward, as long as this ruling stands (as presumably it will for the duration of this election!), it gives people very clear assurance that they cannot be prosecuted for trading their votes or for setting up votetrading sites.

“The day-to-day horse-race coverage of the election can easily blind us to just how unprecedented the threat of Trump really
“The day-to-day horse-race coverage of the election can easily blind us to just how unprecedented the threat of Trump really is in the context of American history.”

Linch: So let me be blunt: why the heck should we care about what a quantum physicist has to say about voting?

Scott: First, of all, I’m not a physicist; I’m a theoretical computer scientist. But more importantly, no one should listen to me because of any “authority” that comes from that, which isn’t much in any case! In general, I think people should examine ideas on their merits, rather than engaging in boring debates about who has the “standing” to say what. But if anything did give me “standing” to discuss this subject, it wouldn’t be computer science or quantum physics, but rather my own previous involvement with Gore/Nader vote swapping.

Linch: Lots of people don't think there's a worthwhile difference between the two main party candidates, so they may as well vote third party. What makes you think differently?"

Scott: The day-to-day horse-race coverage of the election can easily blind us to just how unprecedented the threat of Trump really is in the context of American history. I don’t think we’ve ever had an election before where one of the two major candidates issued thinly veiled threats of violence against his opponent. Where he said that protesters at his rallies should be roughed up, where he flirts with white nationalism, where he threatens to commit war crimes, and deploy nuclear weapons tactically, and walk away from defense treaties, and pay back US debt “at a discount.” Where he changes his positions from day to day, and provides no details about them, and barely even seems able to speak in coherent sentences.

Look: I think the idea that there’s no difference between the Democratic and Republican candidates is wrong even in a “normal” election. It was wrong in 2000. Especially in retrospect, we can clearly see that Gore would have pursued very different domestic and especially foreign policies than Bush did. But the idea that there’s no difference in this election is just laughable! Ridiculous to the ridiculous power! One of the candidates is a proudly-ignorant authoritarian demagogue. The other one is a competent, knowledgeable, relatively conventional politician. Of course she’s flawed---a little too secretive, too corrupt, too unprincipled---but only within the normal parameters! She’ll more or less continue her husband’s successful policies from the 1990s, and Obama’s from the past eight years, and she obviously doesn’t pose an existential threat to our system of government. So I think the difference couldn’t be starker.

Linch: When I explain the concept of votetrading to my friends, the biggest concern (other than legality) is defection. Say I agree to votetrade with someone. How do I know I wouldn’t get screwed?

Scott: In some states, it’s perfectly legal to take a picture of your ballot with your iPhone and email it to your partner. But in other states it isn’t, because it would facilitate vote-selling. So please check your state law before doing this!

In any case, though, even if your partner sent you a photo, theoretically they could’ve altered the ballot afterward. So the bottom line is that you don’t know for certain. You need to trust your partner. If you’re going to vote-swap, you absolutely need to chat with your partner first, get to know them like a friend, feel like you understand their motivations.

But there’s a further point--and indeed, making this point was part of what motivated me to set up my Defense of Nadertrading site in 2000. Namely, even if you think there’s (say) a 50% probability that your partner will defect, vote swapping is probably worth it! If you live in a safe state, that’s obvious, since even 50% of a swing-state vote matters more to the outcome of the election than 100% of your vote. If you live in a swing state, it depends on your priorities, but roughly speaking, it’s true if stopping Trump and helping Gary Johnson are of comparable importance to you.

"Votetrading combines two separate absurdities of our elections--Arrow’s Theorem and the Electoral College--in order to creat
"Votetrading combines two separate absurdities of our elections--Arrow’s Theorem and the Electoral College--in order to create something weird and wonderful at their intersection...it reminded me of combining quantum mechanics with general relativity." For more details, see the supplemental section on Medium: https://medium.com/@draconlord/dr-aaronson-or-how-i-learned-to-stop-hating-trump-and-love-the-vote-trade-pt-2-a7f9c71522f1#.76st8v9sz

Linch: Say I’m a common citizen who really wants to stop Trump from attaining the presidency. Other than voting for Hillary in a swing state and votetrading if I live in a “safe” State, what else can I do to help stop Trump?

Scott: That’s an excellent question. If you figure out a good answer, you should tell me! I think GOTV efforts are really important. Helping to arrange rides to the polls, busing people there, making sure people get registered to vote and eligible voters aren’t turned away … these are all things that can make a difference.

But of course, there are people who are much more expert in those things than I am. Like you said before, I’m just a quantum computer scientist, and I’m just focusing on one particular strategy (vote swapping) where it seems possible that nerds like me might be able to make a difference.

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Convinced by Scott Aaronson and interested in acting now to stop Donald Trump?

1) If youre not registered to vote, sign up on VOTE.org! The process is a lot simpler than you think!

2) If youre a Clinton supporter in a safe state or a Third Party supporter in a swing state, please consider a votetrading site like MakeMineCount.org!

3) Consider contributing your talents! Sign up for our mailing list here! Also you can poke around on existing projects, eg. here and here.

4) Finally, please share this article and/or your preferred votetrading site with your friends and anybody else who you think might be interested.

Trade Votes. Stop Trump.

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The author would like to thank Tessa Alexanian and Jai Dhyani for their awesome suggestions and input.

Several questions were deleted for space constraints. Interested readers can see additional notes on Medium.

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