ann marie lanesey on 21 Aug 2000 21:11:18 -0000

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[Nettime-bold] 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 person."

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 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 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 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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