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Wanna Buy My Vote? Fuhgeddaboutit

Issue Date: Aug 21 2000, a site that enables citizens to sell their votes, shut down Friday amid legal questions.

If you were thinking of selling your vote in the presidential election, think again., a Web site that offers a forum for citizens to sell their votes to the highest bidder, shut down Friday amid legal questions and technical glitches. EBay also has pulled the plug on at least seven people who have posted their votes for sale on its auction site since Wednesday.

The problem: Buying and selling votes violates federal and state statutes.

"You have to make your own decision how you want to vote," says Douglas Kellner, a New York City Board of Elections commissioner who helped persuade Voteauction to close. "People can spend money to influence your vote, but they can't buy it."

James Baumgartner, a graduate student working toward a master's in fine arts at Renssellaer Polytechnical Institute in Troy, N.Y., launched Voteauction earlier this month. He shut it down Friday and announced Monday that he was selling the content and domain name to an e-commerce developer in Austria. He did not disclose sales figures and did not know about the buyer's plans. No charges have been filed against Baumgartner.

Baumgartner's idea was to capitalize on undecided or disillusioned voters who intended to sit out during the November election - a group that comprises more than half the amount of voters from four years ago. Baumgartner also hoped to divert some of the millions of dollars being spent on advertising and consultants to get voters. "I thought it'd be more direct and more democratic to have these voters make money from their vote," Baumgartner says. The site's motto: "Bringing Democracy and Capitalism Closer Together."

Voteauction planned to auction votes in blocks according to state. Bids would start at $100 per state and go up by $50. Whoever had the highest bid would get to decide how the entire group of votes from the particular state would vote. Voters would divide the final price equally among themselves.

Despite server crashes last week, about 200 voters signed up at Voteauction on Thursday after an online article featured the site. "Selling my vote I think is a very obvious political statement," said one enrollee from upstate New York, who would only give her online pseudonym, "Jenny Ondioline." "It's saying that if the buying and selling of votes is going on even now between closed doors, through the lobbyists, let's make it a little more obvious."

The vehicle for that political statement is following the course of other troubled dot-coms, albeit for a different reason. Although many Web sites have ceased operations in recent months because of financial problems, Baumgartner decided it would be "prudent" to shut the site down Friday night after his thesis adviser, Albany attorney Paul Rapp, received a call from Commissioner Kellner.

"Under New York law, it is a felony merely to offer to sell your vote or to offer to buy a vote," Kellner says. People who buy or sell votes or gamble on the outcome of an election forfeit their right to vote, he added.

Buying and selling votes also is illegal under federal law, according to a U.S. Justice Department spokeswoman. The Justice Department has been talking to eBay (EBAY)'s counsel about the votes for sale on the auction site, which were removed, said company spokesman Kevin Pursglove.

Rapp suggests that Voteauction might not have violated the law because it merely proposed to provide a forum for votes to be bought and sold, without engaging in the actual practice. Baumgartner suggests another defense: a landmark 1976 legal decision called Buckley vs. Valeo. In the "money equals speech" decision, the U.S. Supreme Court found that to limit campaign spending was to violate free speech.

While Rapp finds the argument "interesting," he can imagine judges rolling their eyes in a courtroom. After all, "the end result would be the sanctioning the sale of an election," he says. "No judge is going to endorse that."

Updated 12:38 AM PST

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