Austrian Takes Bids on U.S. Votes

“We don’t care about state law,” said the Austrian who bought from an American graduate student. He hopes to make money from what he calls “the American election industry.”

“We don’t care about state law,” said the Austrian who bought from an American graduate student. He hopes to make money from what he calls “the American election industry.”

When a website that offered to auction presidential votes to the highest bidder was shut down last month, lamentations over a democracy for sale shifted into the past tense.

The threat of wholesale vote-buying had come and gone — or so it seemed.

However, in the meantime, has changed owners as well as modus operandi. And this time, it appears, the prospect of squelching the wrongdoing is going to involve more than a threatening phone call.

“Our server is in Bulgaria at the moment,” said Hans Bernhard, an Austrian investor and new owner of Voteauction. “It’s a Twilight Zone out there. And we can even move it further on, if it’s necessary. We can disconnect it from my person. We’re very flexible with this. Because we’re very interested in the core business, in the idea — and in the future of this idea.”

On Aug. 22, Bernhard bought the fledgling site from James Baumgartner, an art graduate student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, who had conceived of the site as a satire on the American campaign finance system. However, where Baumgartner — who ran Voteauction himself from his studio in upstate New York — viewed the site as a commentary on the vagaries of American plutocracy, Bernhard espouses no such higher motives.

For the Austrian businessman, American voters have a product that can be sold. Simple as that.

“They’re proving the point that the market knows no bounds,” said Jamin Raskin, a law professor at American University. “These people are just 50 years ahead of their time in seeing that the ultimate destination of the current [electoral] process is that everything will be for sale — from the votes of citizens to the votes of legislators to perhaps even, heaven forbid, the votes of Supreme Court justices.

“So the society has got to get serious and figure out what are in fact the principled limitations on the logic of the marketplace. Because right now ‘May the highest bidder win’ is the logic for everything.”

Presently, according to Bernhard, Voteauction has a core team of seven employees: lawyers, communications experts, and marketing people. As of Tuesday morning, the site was trafficking in 376 votes with $10,600 in bids already posted. Bids are submitted via email to the Austrian clearinghouse and are broken down state by state.

New York, whose electoral boards shut down Voteauction with one phone call when it was run stateside, has been excluded from the bidding. But in every other state in the union — where, according to Raskin, vote buying and selling are also unambiguously illegal activities –Voteauction blithely continues to facilitate vote fraud as if it were just another Beenie Baby auction on eBay.

The 68 California voters who have reportedly offered up their presidential votes to the highest bidder currently face a $34.56 paycheck for marking their ballots as told — as well as the possibility of criminal prosecution if they get caught. As of Tuesday morning, the price-per-vote in Illinois was up to $64.70, while Kansas’ two Voteauction participants are promised $100 each.

According to Brad Smith, a law professor at Capital University and current member of the Federal Election Commission, the only distinction between Voteauction and other electoral fraud systems is size.

“Conceptually, the enforcement problem is really no different from any other vote-fraud or vote-buying scheme,” Smith said. “If I’m going to go out and buy votes with street money I’m going to try to keep it underground, and make sure people can’t track it or get witnesses. What’s different here is the potential magnitude of operation. Because what the Web does, as it does in all kinds of legitimate commerce, is provide this great worldwide auction market.”

Smith, who also pointed out that prosecution of such illegal activities would most likely be up to individual states, questioned the ultimate feasibility of the Voteauction scheme — since verification is a bottleneck that fortunately no one has been able to work around.

However, verification is only as much of a concern as buyers want it to be.

“Verification will now be the responsibility of the winning bidder,” a spokesman for Voteauction said in a recent email interview. “They can choose from a variety of methods for verification of the votes. They may have the voters send in their absentee ballots for verification, they may have the voters take a photograph inside the voting booth, or they may go on the honor system — this is the system that many vote-purchasing endeavors have used in the past.

“We have chosen to have the winning bidders responsible for the verification because it would not be feasible to have people send their absentee ballots all the way to Austria and have us send them back to America within an appropriate time frame.”

As for the obvious and undoubtedly immediate reaction Voteauction will inspire when state prosecutors and boards of election get wind of its activities, Bernhard sounded a sentiment all too familiar in an age where the difference between onshore and offshore commerce can be measured in mouse clicks.

“Why should we react on a state prosecution level?” Bernhard asked. “Outside of the U.S., we don’t care about state law. We only care about any kind of international law that might be affected. On the other hand, there might be a reaction on our side, if it might affect the users who sell their vote. That would be the only reason why we would react. But then we would be protecting our customers, and not our company.”

Should Voteauction actually manage to weather the coming tempest of summons and prosecutions — and also somehow insulate its buyers and sellers from detection and conviction — Bernhard said he has plans to venture beyond what he calls “the American election industry.”

“For us, it’s a double strategy,” said Bernhard, whose investments include the wily conglomerate of Internet mischief makers etoy. “On the one side, we do run Voteauction for this election. On the other side, we definitely see it as a test pilot for [elections] in Europe.”

Roger Pilon of the libertarian Cato Institute noted that Voteauction’s illegal activities should indeed be curtailed. But he also understood the frustration of the American voters and vote-buyers who participate in the process:

“When Al Gore promises prescription benefits for seniors, is he not buying votes? When George W. Bush says to college students, I’m going to give you free tuition if you vote for me, it’s the same thing, isn’t it?”

Still, according to Smith of the FEC, an important distinction remains between vote-influencing and outright vote-buying.

“There is much that is problematic about any system of financing elections, including the way we finance our elections now,” Smith said. “But there is a fundamental difference between paying someone to vote in a certain way and trying to convince someone to vote in a certain way. Trying to convince any large group of people involves spending money to communicate, and that’s what the Supreme Court said in Buckley v. Valeo.

“But the voter remains under no obligation to vote in any particular way. There’s a reason why every state in the union makes it illegal to buy votes. But no state makes it illegal for individuals to contribuite money to a candidate.”

Raskin of American University reiterated that Voteauction has entered the American marketplace when accusations of corruption and influence peddling have become so rampant that outright vote fraud loses some of its outrageous taint.

“Traditionally, we have thought that votes operate in a separate sphere from dollars,” he said. “But the Supreme Court has not helped to build a wall of separation between public elections and the private economy. On the contrary, that wall is riddled with holes and crumbling all the time. So I think this business is appealing to a strong public sense that everybody’s getting rich in politics but the voters.”

Author: Mark K. Anderson

News Service: Wired News


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