Want To Sell Your Vote? Not So Fast

Tracking politics as it's practiced on the Web.
Oct. 14 2000 12:00 AM

Want To Sell Your Vote? Not So Fast

The Chicago Board of Elections plans to file a lawsuit against Voteauction.com, saying the site promotes fraud.

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Slate, the Industry Standard, and washingtonpost.com join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000. 

The Chicago Board of Election Commissioners is planning to file a lawsuit Monday against Vote-auction.com, a Web site that enables people to put their presidential votes up for bid, after discovering that 1,131 Illinois residents were participating in that questionable practice.

The suit will request an injunction to shut down the Web site, which was launched by graduate student James Baumgartner in August 2000 in New York and then purchased by a group of European investors.

The idea for the site was to capitalize on undecided and disillusioned voters who intended to sit out the November election. Baumgartner also wanted to divert some of the millions of dollars being spent on advertising and consultants to voters. The site offers an auction of votes by state. Bids would start at $100 per state and go up by at least $50. Whoever has the highest bid gets to decide how the entire group of participants from the particular state would vote, and voters would divide the final price equally among themselves.

"They're violating the law," says Thomas Leach, a spokesman with the election board. "The fact is that they're promoting vote fraud. It's a federal and state felony to buy or sell votes, or to offer to buy or sell votes."

Hans Bernhard, an Austrian who is one the site's new owners, said he has not yet received official notice from the Chicago agency and could not comment on the suit. But he maintains that the theory behind the site is no different than soft-money contributions raised by political parties.

Bernhard acknowledges that verifying votes remains a technical and legal problem. Baumgartner, who is working toward an MFA degree at Renssellaer Polytechnical Institute, had envisioned requiring participants to vote by absentee ballot, sending the ballot first to Vote-auction to verify that the correct candidate was checked off.

"This is clearly an offense," acknowledges Bernhard, addressing the question of whether the absentee-voter verification idea was illegal. Bernhard expects his team of 20 people to devise a solution within the next couple of weeks.

Chicago officials are particularly sensitive to this use of absentee ballots, Leach says. Complaints about absentee ballot tampering arose in the city's aldermanic elections in 1995 and prompted the elections board to regularly survey 5 percent of absentee votes to ensure there is no fraud, according to Leach.

The Chicago lawsuit is not the first legal run-in for Vote-auction. Baumgartner shut down the site in August after a New York City Board of Elections commissioner threatened a crackdown. Then Baumgartner sold the site to a group of four investors from Switzerland, Austria, and German, led by Bernhard, who reports owning a number of small dot-com ventures. The California secretary of state also has sent an e-mail and certified letter to Bernhard notifying him that Vote-auction is engaged in criminal activity.

The site says it has 15,128 people who have put their votes up for bid. The total bid price currently comes to $170,600. California's votes appear to be the most valuable, selling for $19.61 per vote. Votes from Louisiana are the least valuable, selling for $3.57 each.

After acquiring the site for an undisclosed price, Bernhard relaunched Vote-auction last month with new features, including a "voter empowerment kit." The kit lets users download a form letter asking candidates to pay them directly for their vote instead of spending money on advertising. "Since you are spending so much money on this year's election, why not give it straight to the voters instead?" the letter reads. "For a mere $____, you can influence my vote directly and be assured of my support. I look forward to doing business with you," it closes.

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