<<<bernhard loibner>>> on 7 Sep 2000 05:07:30 -0000

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<nettime> austrians & democracy

this is not from a sanctimonious anglo-saxon...


Austrian Takes Bids on U.S. Votes
by Mark K. Anderson

3:00 a.m. Sep. 6, 2000 PDT

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.

However, in the meantime, Voteauction.com 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

On Aug. 22, Bernhard bought the fledgling site from James Baumgartner, an
art graduate student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New Yok,
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

"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. Vallejo.

"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."

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