Is a vote selling Web site parody or threat?
- By William Matthews
- Sep 25, 2000
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
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
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
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."