Is a vote selling Web site parody or threat?

Wicked political satire, or just wicked? A Web site, Vote-auction.com, is

generating grins and chagrin with its brazen offer to buy and sell votes

via the Internet.

"Sell your vote online," the site urges. "Voteauction.com is devoted

to combining the American principles of democracy and capitalism by bringing

the big money of campaigns directly to the voting public."

The site promises candidates "a greater return on your campaign investment"

by buying votes outright rather than paying millions of dollars to consultants

and advertisers to influence voters.

To voters, Voteauction says, "profit from your election capital by selling

your vote to the highest bidder."

The month-old Web site has been praised as pointed parody and condemned

as a detriment to democracy.

Created by James Baumgartner, a 26-year-old graduate student at Rensselaer

Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., the site has generated hundreds of

responses from voters as well as a prompt cease-and-desist order from the

New York Board of Elections.

Amid warnings that buying and selling votes is a felony, Baumgartner

sold the site to an Austrian businessman, who has said he plans to operate

the site through the November presidential election to judge its potential

for profit.

The idea that the Internet could turn votes into a marketable commodity

troubles many. About a week after Vote-auction went online, California Secretary

of State Bill Jones threatened to prosecute "any individual who attempts

to buy or sell votes, whether through an Internet auction site or personal

communication."

California election fraud investigators "will be monitoring Web sites

for suspicious election activity," Jones said.

"There is no question in my mind that this could be used to influence

the outcome of elections," said Deborah Phillips, president of The Voting

Integrity Project, a voter rights organization. "It's cynical."

Others see only keen satire. "It's a joke," insisted Ari Schwartz, a

policy analyst at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a research organization

that promotes improving democracy via information technology.

New York election officials were less certain. "It's hard to place in

my mind if it's over-the-line political satire, or if there is money being

transacted," said Lee Daghlian, public information director for the New

York Board of Elections.

Ultimately, state election officials warned Baumgartner that selling

and buying votes "is thoroughly illegal," Daghlian said. However, the state

took no action against Baumgartner after he posted "Not Valid in New York"

on the site. "As far as we're concerned, since it says that, it doesn't

apply in New York, — it's out of our hands," Daghlian said.

Justice Department spokeswoman Chris Watney said at least two federal

laws make it illegal to buy or sell votes or to aid and abet in the buying

or selling of votes. She declined to say whether any action would be taken

against Voteauction.

It may be too late, according to Phillips. "Now that it's moved offshore,

the question is whether even those authorities who could pursue it — the

Justice Department and the FBI — would be able to do so."

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