Do I hear $90,000 for your vote?

Americans can go online and sell their election vote to the highest bidder. Is this the ultimate expression of capitalism?
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Are you planning on staying home this election? Now you can profit from your election capital by selling your vote to the highest bidder. To register with voteauction.com, click on the "sell" button on the left of your screen.

Are you planning on staying home this election? Now you can profit from your election capital by selling your vote to the highest bidder. To register with voteauction.com, click on the "sell" button on the left of your screen.

Sound implausible? Well, it is not. After Beanie Babies and second-hand shoehorns, votes are the latest item to go on sale over the internet. So far, more than 8,000 Americans have sold their votes for next month's presidential election online at voteauction.com, with a total bidding price of over $90,000.

"Bringing Capitalism and Democracy Closer Together", is the slogan of the site which was launched in August and is targeted at those 100 million Americans who are eligible to vote in the hotly-contested 2000 presidential election, but choose not to. The man behind the controversial scheme, which he calls a "free-market exchange", is James Baumgartner, 26, a New York based political science graduate. Claiming he is frustrated by deep-pocket politics - millions of dollars will be spent on this election - he set out to make a difference.

His gripe is not with the money-hungry candidates or their generous donors, but with political consultants who, he claims, make big bucks out of the electoral system.

"These consultants spend the campaign contributor's money, while taking a 10 to 15 per cent cut for themselves," he says. "They're paid based on their ability to deliver voters to the candidates. This effectively treats the voters as a product to be sold to the candidates, or their campaign contributors.

"This seems like an inefficient system to me, buying and selling votes without benefit to the voters. Voteauction.com allows campaign contributors, or investors, as I prefer to say, to cut out the middlemen and spend directly on the voters."

The end product of his curious logic is that votes are auctioned in blocks according to state. Bids start at $100 per state and go up by $50. The winning bidder decides how the entire group of willing vote-sellers from each state must cast their ballots. And voters divide the final price equally among themselves.

Vote-sellers tend to be in their twenties, and male - many are students, while vote-buyers tend to be in their forties, affluent and Republican. Almost all of the bids come from individuals seeking to increase the number of votes for their favourite candidates. Baumgartner claims large companies have placed bids, but won't say who they are.

"It needs to be shut down," says Deborah Phillips, president of the Voting Integrity Project, a public interest group that often deals with internet issues. "It's cynicism raised to a new art form. It's destructive to the democratic process. If 50 state prosecutors don't jump on this guy's back and every voter that participates, they aren't doing their job."

Vote-buying and selling is clearly illegal. Trading votes in a federal election is a federal crime punishable by a $10,000 fine and five years in jail. Baumgartner temporarily shut down the site in August after he was contacted "indirectly" by the New York City Election Commission. But he is not backing down.

"If voteauction.com is committing vote fraud, then candidates who accept soft money are certainly guilty of election fraud," he says. No vote-sellers have been charged, and only two people so far have asked for their names to be removed from the site due to legal concerns. This was out of 200 people who signed up in the first day.

In August, the US Justice Department contacted eBay after a handful of users put their votes up for sale on the internet auction site. When eBay learnt what was happening, it removed the items immediately. "The reality of it is, even if people think it's a prank, we take it very seriously," said spokesman Kevin Pursglove. "This is an act that could bring along felony charges."

Votes have been for sale in America since 1757, when George Washington bought alcohol for every voter in his district, Baumgartner says. He believes the site is protected by recent Supreme Court decisions that equate money with free speech, including a landmark case (Buckley v Valeo) in 1976, sanctioning the use of soft money in political campaigns. He sold voteauction in August for an undisclosed sum, but is still a spokesperson for it.

The site's new owner is Hans Bernhard, an Austrian e-commerce developer in his late twenties. He employs 35 people, including lawyers, who work for the site. Operating outside of US jurisdiction may give Bernhard an advantage. "We're evaluating the situation with our lawyers in the US and in Europe," he says, discussing the site's legal status.

"What we do know is that we operate in a twilight zone. But we're positive that we can either adapt our business system, or find solutions in order to run the site successfully."

John Bonifaz, executive director of the national Voting Rights Institute, says the vote auctions are indeed bribery, but so "is a lot of what goes on in the halls of Congress and in the White House". It's activities are "only one or two steps removed from the existing campaign-finance system," he says.

"It's a great way of emphasising to voters how much others are gaining from the system, and how little voters are getting in comparison," says Sheila Krumholz, research director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan organisation that studies the influence of money in politics. "You have to give this guy credit, bringing this to people's attention in a provocative way." According to Baumgartner, the biggest spenders invariably win elections today. Voteauction "Action Teams" now plan to spread their message at prominent events across the US. They joined the demonstrators outside the presidential debate in Boston, handing out "Empowerment Kits", which include vote-selling bumper stickers and fliers. "If we're successful, we will expand into elections all over the world," says Bernhard, who bought the site as a money-making venture. "We're working legally and technically to target UK elections in 2001, and German elections in 2002."

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