Web site offering votes for sale draws concern

By Steven Cook
Gazette Reporter

August 19, 2000
TROY - Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute graduate student James Baumgartner says he's doing a service to the country with his new Web site Voteauction.com by encouraging participation in elections.

But State Board of Elections executive director Tom Wilkey said Baumgartner's entrepreneurism is illegal. State and federal laws prohibit the sale of political votes, Wilkey said.

"If this is indeed not a joke and not an attempt to make a political point," Wilkey said Friday, "There are laws all over the country against this."

Voter watchdog groups say that if the site, which essentially allows people to put their votes up to the highest bidder, is allowed to continue it would "drive the final stake into the heart" of the U.S. electoral system.

"Most of these people think it doesn't matter who they vote for," said 26-year-old Overland Park, Kan.,-native Baumgartner of the more than 200 people who signed up Thursday at his site. For a few of them it will be their first time voting, which is great."

The site was launched Aug. 1, Baumgartner said, as a way of "connecting campaign contributors directly to voters."

Thursday's surge in seller enrollment came after popular computer magazine Wired posted a story on its Web site.

For now, the site only allows people to auction their presidential vote. But Baumgartner said he has plans to include other races, like the U.S. Senate or House.

The site works by having voters identify their state of voter registration. All the registered voters from a particular state are bundled and sold to the highest bidder.

The money is then distributed "democratically," Baumgartner said, to the voters, each getting an equal portion of the winning bid, Baumgartner said.

Once auctioned votes are confirmed, voters will be asked to send completed absentee ballots. The site would then forward them to the state's election officials.

Baumgartner said he wouldn't profit from the actual vote auction, but hopes to eventually have advertisers.

The auction, he said, is a natural extension of today's elections and the millions spent by lobbyists and corporations funding the candidates.

It's those interest groups and corporations that are the intended buyers, he said, though none have signed up.

"Corporations don't have the right to vote," Baumgartner said. "This vote auction gives them the right to vote."

"We're not advocating campaign finance reform," he said. "Campaign financing is essential to our company. Obviously, Voteauction.com wouldn't work if the system wasn't what it currently is."

Though more than 200 people have signed up to auction their votes and a small number have signed up to bid, no votes have been sold yet, Baumgartner said.

And the Board of Election's Wilkey strongly cautioned Baumgartner against going through with any sales.

Wilkey noted a recent case in Maryland where the state attorney general is investigating a user of the online auction site eBay for posting his vote for auction.

Wilkey said no complaints have been filed with the board yet, but any violations, which would be felonies, would be forwarded to the local district attorney.

Baumgartner's attorney, Paul Rapp, of Albany, likened Voteauction.com to that of embattled music site Napster. Napster, embroiled in a lawsuit brought by the entertainment industry, allows users to trade music online without the site taking part in the transaction.

"It appears to be up in the air," Rapp said. "James is not selling his own vote and he's not buying anybody's vote. He's merely acting as a place for people to meet to do that."

"It sort of fits seamlessly into the discussions about campaign financing and what that means," Rapp said.

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