ann marie lanesey on 21 Aug 2000 21:52:06 -0000

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<nettime> voteauction

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

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

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 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. 

"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

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

Online auctions will be conducted at 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

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 For something of similar magnitude, one
must look overseas to cases in India, Montenegro, Japan, Morocco, or

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 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.",1294,38229,00.html

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