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Thousands Sign Up to Sell Votes
by Mark K. Anderson

3:00 a.m. Sep. 22, 2000 PDT

According to detective novels and TV shows, criminals are those who perform illegal actions clandestinely. But some real-world scofflaws get more mileage out of the adage, "If you've got it, flaunt it."

Recently, the Austrian owner of flaunted it.

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Boasting of the more than 6,000 Americans who have signed up to auction off their presidential votes to the highest bidder -- illegal activity under the laws of every state in the union -- Voteauction is now detailing its plans to begin an outreach campaign.

Using its "Voter Empowerment Kits" and "Action Teams," the company claims in a press release that it can reach more potential customers and facilitate voter fraud without the intervention of an online middleman.

Such activity leaves Deborah Phillips of the Voting Integrity Project flummoxed.

Phillips has been observing the ups and downs of the blatantly felonious site since August, when Wired News first reported on this curious conglomeration of satire, lawlessness and voracious capitalism.

"Why isn't the Justice Department getting involved?" she said. "Why hasn't there been any comment from the White House? Why hasn't Congress held any hearings?"

Federal Election Commission member Brad Smith noted that federal and state officials may be hesitating for three reasons.

First, the site probably hasn't garnered enough media attention yet to mobilize all the forces who should be opposing Voteauction.

Second, since the site traffics in a novel form of overseas-instigated vote fraud, it's also undoubtedly unclear just who those forces are -- whether they be the Department of Justice, Department of State, municipal or statewide boards of election, state attorneys general or other offices tasked specifically to monitor the Internet. (Voteauction, he guessed, would probably not be handled by the FEC.)

Finally, he said, it's still unclear just how widespread a threat a site like Voteauction represents.

"I suspect that if this began to appear to be a problem on a large enough scale, though, you'd see action, and it'd come quickly," Smith said.

According to Hans Bernhard, the Austrian businessman who bought Voteauction from James Baumgartner, a New York graduate student who developed the site, American reaction against his investment has already begun.

In addition to the hate emails he receives for running an offshore enterprise that facilitates American felonies, Berhard reports that the site has also been the recipient of numerous hacks and electronic attacks.

"We do understand that there is a certain interest on the part of certain services of the U.S. government who most probably are interested in this data," Bernhard said of Voteauction's list of vote sellers and buyers. "Our job is to protect this data. We don't want this data to be public."

According to James Baumgartner, the MFA student who first conceived of the site as a commentary on wholesale corruption in American politics, a few facts can be divulged about the $75,000 in bids so far and the 6,000 participants.

Vote-sellers on the whole tend to be in their twenties, male and with at least some college education -- including a lot of college students, he said. Vote buyers, on the other hand, tend to be in their forties, affluent and Republican.

Almost all of the bids for votes -- broken down by state -- have come from individuals seeking to increase the number of votes for their favorite candidates. Only three companies, in the "$200 million sales range," Baumgartner said, have yet placed any bids for Voteauction votes.

The profile of both sides of the Internet auction does jibe with the history of vote-buying in America, said Larry J. Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist and author of the 1996 book Dirty Little Secrets: The Persistence of Corruption in American Politics.

Especially telling is the fact that the payoff-per-vote, as tallied on the site, is settling into the $10-$20 range -- the amount of cash an individual vote tends to command in other, non-Internet-based schemes.

"It always seems to be about $20," Sabato said. "That must be the going rate. And when you think about it, it makes sense. Because 10 bucks is not what it used to be. With 20 bucks you can get a pretty good meal, if you know where to go. And I think that's how some people conceive of it. Their vote may be worth a meal. It's sad, but that may be true."

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