Close Vote? You Can Bid on It
by Mark K. Anderson

3:00 a.m. Aug. 17, 2000 PDT

This week, as the country endures a second foregone convention, a website is gearing up to convert voter cynicism into voter income. If citizens do indeed find the choice between Gush and Bore meaningless, the proprietors of Voteauction.com say, why not at least make a little cash on the side?

That is, after all, the American way.

"The clearest language is, we're selling votes," said James Baumgartner, an MFA student at Troy, New York's Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and founder of Voteauction -- the subject of his thesis.

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"The person who raises the most money is the person who almost invariably wins," Baumgartner said of the current political system. "And they're treating the voter as an end-product, like how the television industry treats the viewers.

"In the current election system, the voter is a product to be sold to the corporations. But they're being sold through this convoluted method of advertising, consultants, (and) traveling. Voteauction is making a more direct line -- the old cutting-out-the-middle-man approach."

It's a ploy that certainly strikes the untrained ear as a violation of something -- whether it's election laws or just basic democratic values. It's also an eventuality some framers of the Constitution feared.

According to Sheila Krumholz, research director at campaign finance watchdog organization Center for Responsive Politics, the concept is clever as well as incendiary. "I can't imagine that this wouldn't be rife with legal entanglements and cause legal appeals," she said.

Nevertheless, she added, "I think it's really a brilliant ploy on their part. Through sarcasm it shows how absurd the system is. It tells voters to prize their voting franchise, and yet it tells them it's just another commodity."

Jamin Raskin, a law professor at American University, takes Krumholz's reactions further. He noted that, for starters: "For someone to facilitate an exchange of money for a vote would in most jurisdictions constitute criminal conspiracy."

However, he added, depending on the cleverness with which Voteauction is designed, the site could actually test the limits of the Supreme Court's 1976 "money equals speech" ruling.

"The proposition being tested here is whether the general theory that it's OK for money to buy elections extends to money buying individual votes," Raskin said. "The insight of the authors is that we have now evolved a system in which it's OK for money to buy elections, and yet we somehow cling to the fantasy that there's something deeply immoral about the purchase of an individual vote.

"It's as if we don't care about the big things -- that is, people purchasing public offices. But we obsess over the little things -- that is, people buying votes."

Sign up with Voteauction, and potential vote sellers are notified that the Voteauction legal agreement (still being hammered out) will be sent to them at the end of the month.

Baumgartner said he's currently considering a process in which the Voteauction participant fills out an absentee ballot and votes for whomever they want in every race but the presidency. Whether that choice will be Bush, Gore, Nader, Buchanan, or someone else entirely is determined by the outcome of the online auction.

"Then when the time comes, whoever wins the auction decides who this group is going to vote for," Baumgartner said. "So I tell those people you should vote for this person. Then they fill in the form, and then they send it to me. And I just verify that they're voting for the correct person."


Online auctions will be conducted at Voteauction.com state-by-state in September and October, he continued. The blocks of votes will be marketed primarily to businesses and interest groups -- Voteauction does not plan to court the candidates themselves.

The kitty for each state will be split among the Voteauction voters in that state. And the winner of each state's auction will then be able to cast its procured ballots for the contender of its choosing.

Raskin audibly shuddered when he heard the process spelled out.

"That sounds pretty serious," he said. "It's possible that some aggressive prosecutor could try to bring solicitation charges against him just for setting up the possibility of this scheme."

For American historical precedent, Baumgartner cites the 1757 Virginia House of Burgesses race in which George Washington bought each of the 391 voters in his district a quart and a half of alcohol in exchange for their support.

And, of course, the presidential Iowa straw poll offers hardly little more than an opportunity to exchange money for political positioning.

Yet no American example Baumgartner can point to even approaches the proposed scope of Voteauction.com. For something of similar magnitude, one must look overseas to cases in India, Montenegro, Japan, Morocco, or Taiwan.

Given that upwards of 100 million potential eligible voters won't be casting their ballots this November, Baumgartner said perhaps an appeal to the bottom line might get them to the booth.

"Right now the corporations are just passing money around to other corporations," he said. "One corporation is giving money to the campaign, and the campaign is turning around and giving money to television stations, advertising agencies, consultants, things like that. The money is not reaching the people at all. It's leaving them out of the equation."

Raskin concurred. "If this is intended as a cyber satire on the commodification of American politics, one can only applaud the spirit of the authors," he said.

"Right now everyone is making money off elections except the voters.... Everyone is enjoying a lavishly subsidized ride on the back of the American people, and it is ironic that we have replaced old-fashioned vote-buying and bribery with much more sophisticated forms of financial takeover of the electoral process."

Paul Rapp, Albany attorney and thesis advisor to Baumgartner, did caution that individuals participating in Voteauction.com could technically be putting themselves in legal jeopardy.

"Then again, it strikes me that it's on the same level as the Napster controversy," he said. "If you're downloading a song, what is realistically the possibility that Lars Ulrich and the Feds are going to bust your door down and drag you off to art jail? Highly unlikely.

"It would be a victory for James if it generated the same sort of discussion about the nature of our democracy that Napster has had on the nature of ownership of music," said Rapp. "I suspect if James got the sort of traffic that Napster got, one of two things would happen. He would either be facing a considerable jail sentence, or he would become one of the most powerful men in America."


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