08/23/00- Updated 10:21 AM ET


The news behind the Net

Votes up for auction draw official inquiries

By Janet Kornblum, USA TODAY

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Pranks or not, legal officials and election watchdogs are taking seriously the recent attempts to buy and sell political votes on the Internet. Authorities, including the Department of Justice, are looking into several cases of Net vote commerce: In the past week a handful of people have put their votes up for sale on general auction sites, and a New York student launched a site designed to match vote buyers and sellers.

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Both eBay and Yahoo! have removed the auctions and are cooperating with the Justice Department, says an agency spokeswoman. Officials in New York and Maryland also are investigating.

It's unclear if anyone will be prosecuted, but Deborah Phillips, chairwoman of the Voting Integrity Project, a watchdog group based in Arlington, Va., worries that the Net is creating a "fundamentally dangerous" venue for fraud.

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Phillips is especially concerned because James Baumgartner, 26, a student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., is selling his site, VoteAuction.com, to an Austrian businessman. Baumgartner, who says he launched the site to make money, shut it Friday after New York City's Board of Elections raised concerns. He's selling it for an undisclosed price to Hans Bernhard, a Vienna businessman who says he intends to put it back up once he figures out how to run it legally (possibly moving it offshore) and how to profit from voters wanting to make a buck.

"We'll evaluate it and have it running during the presidential election and see if this is a fruitful business," Bernhard says.

Whether the site is successful or intended to be a parody — and even though votes can't be legally sold — the cases raise troublesome issues to Phillips. "I love the Internet. But the more I've looked at this issue, the more concerned I've become, because there's a different mind-set that goes hand-in-hand with Internet entrepreneurs."

Brian Ward, 28, an Ellicott City, Md., database developer who says he was the first to offer his vote on eBay last week, has told Maryland officials that he meant it as satire. "Even if you were serious, you couldn't do this. This warrants some attention, but I think the Internet community is pretty vigilant."