Aug. 20, 2000 -- Your vote could be worth cash.
At least three people recently tried to auction off their votes in November’s presidential election to the highest bidder on eBay. In upstate New York, a site called voteauction.com is trying to be even more audacious, selling blocks of votes to interest groups who want to influence the election.
There’s only one problem: it’s illegal. Buying and selling votes in North America has been illegal since the 1680s, electoral historian Bob Murch said.
“Buying votes has been a crime ever since people started having elections. It was a crime in the Roman republic,” he said.
The owner of voteauction.com, James Baumgartner, a graduate student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., insists that he’s for real.
Court cases have proved, he argues, that in elections, “money is free speech. Corporations or individuals are … influencing voters with their money. Voteauction.com is a more direct method of doing that,” he said.
As a satire on the political system, the vote-sellers get their points across, said Susan Quatrone of political reform advocacy group Common Cause.
“The idea that the American voters’ choices are basically auctioned off to the highest bidders through the soft money system is very true. I like direct, honest satire that cuts through the rhetoric which tries to pretend this system is clean,” she said.
Wanna Buy a Vote?
The votes on eBay appeared for sale on Wednesday and Thursday, spokesman Kevin Pursglove said, and were taken down when a user noticed them and complained.
The auction site, which handles more than 50 million listings every three months, takes down illegal auctions when told about them — in the past people have tried to auction off things like “the dolphin which found Elian [Gonzalez] at sea” and a young man’s virginity.
One of the votes got up to $122 before getting knocked out.
Voteauction.com is a bit more complicated than the one-seller, one-buyer votes on eBay. Apathetic voters theoretically give their votes to the site, which then auctions them off in blocks, state by state, to corporations or individuals.
Voters would order absentee ballots, fill them out based on Voteauction’s recommendation, and then send them to Baumgartner for verification before he sends them to polling places. The voters would get cash; Baumgartner gets revenues from banner ads placed on his site.
“The election industry is spending hundreds of millions of dollars in an attempt to influence the presidential election. This system is an inefficient waste of money for the candidates and their supporters. Voteauction.com is committed to improving this system by bringing the campaign contributors’ money directly to the voters,” the site says.
As of this afternoon, 200 people had signed up with voteauction.com, according to Baumgartner. Earlier this week, votes were going for up to $50 apiece. Four “interested individuals” — not candidates — had applied to buy some of the votes, Baumgartner said. He plans to close his auction two weeks before the election.
That is, if he isn’t arrested. Any attempt at buying or selling individual votes is criminal, according to the U.S. Justice Department.
“Anyone who’s going to be in a position to buy probably has a lawyer who’s going to hit the roof at the very thought of it,” Murch said.
Voteauction.com tries to bolster its case by citing past precedents, like a 1757 Virginia election where George Washington bought all the voters liquor. That’s different from buying individual votes, Murch said. Washington threw a party after the vote to which everyone was invited, whether or not they voted for him.
The auctions are way above market rates, according to campaign finance data from Common Cause. During the 1995-1996 presidential election cycle, the Democrats spent $141 million to convince 45.6 million people to vote for Bill Clinton, or $3.09 per vote. The Democrats also spent an additional $7.36 per vote in “soft money” — funds spent to influence the electoral process through issue-related advertisements and party support.
The Republicans spent $7.61 per vote in direct campaign money for Bob Dole, and $14.74 per ballot in soft money.
So far in 1999-2000, the Democrats have raised nearly double the amount of soft money that they had at this point in the 1995-1996 cycle, Common Cause data says. The Republicans have raised 82 percent more in 1999-2000 than at the equivalent time in 1995-1996.
The political process isn’t exciting Americans — that’s been shown by low voter turnout rates, Murch said. Selling votes through the Internet means people see their franchise as worthless, he said.
“People see no value in their vote; they don’t see their vote as something that allows them to participate in self-government … instead of simply not voting, they think, I’ll give my vote to the highest bidder,” he said.
Quatrone sees it as the ultimate statement of political futility.
“If [voteauction] is serious, it is a sick sign of the depth to which cynicism has sunk,” she said.
Baumgartner agrees that his vote-sellers don’t feel like their votes matter much.
“Most of them are people who see the candidates spending a lot of money and feel like they deserve part of that,” he said. “A lot of them also say that the two candidates are pretty much the same on issues that matter to them. They feel like they aren’t making a difference if they choose one of those two candidates, so they feel like they might as well make some money as part of the process,” he said.