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Web site offers to sell U.S. presidential votes
(CNN) -- A new Web site promises to "bring capitalism and democracy closer together" by auctioning votes in the 2000 presidential election.
But the political protest scheme could also bring forth criminal charges, officials said.
"The election industry is spending hundreds of millions of dollars in an attempt to influence the presidential election," reads voteauction.com, which launched in August. "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 August startup purports to give voters the ability to place their ballots on the auction block, state by state. The highest bidder determines which White House candidate the voteauction.com participants in each state will select en masse.
"I'm not being cynical," said founder James Baumgartner, a political science graduate student in New York. "I'm being realistic. Most people have an honest view of how the candidates are selling themselves. Voters should be included in the situation and get some of the windfall."
At least one political observer praised the message delivered by the site.
"It's really a great way to bring home to voters how much others (big donors) are gaining from the system and how little voters are getting in comparison," said Sheila Krumholz, research director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan organization that studies the influence of money in politics.
"You have to give this guy credit, bringing this to people's attention in a provocative way," she said.
But not everyone agrees.
"It needs to be shut down," said Deborah Phillips, president of the Voting Integrity Project, a non-profit public interest group that often deals with Internet issues. "It's cynicism raised to a new art form. It's destructive to the democratic process. If 50 state prosecutors don't jump on this guy's back and every voter that participates, they aren't doing their job."
Legal authorities have taken notice of similar escapades. The U.S. Justice Department contacted eBay this week after a handful of users offered their votes for sale on the Internet auction site.
When eBay learned of the questionable sale items, it removed them from the site immediately, spokesman Kevin Pursglove said.
"The reality is, even if people think it's a prank, we take it very seriously," said Pursglove. "This is an act that could bring along felony charges."
Vote sellers and buyers violate both state and federal laws and could face thousands of dollars in fines or years in prison, authorities say.
Baumgartner said he is not directly selling or buying votes, only providing a forum where others can do so, provided he takes a percentage of the transaction money.
He also argues that he is protected by recent Supreme Court decisions that equate money with free speech, including one in the 1970s that sanctioned the use of soft money in political campaigns.
But even his sympathizers are not so sure. Krumholz anticipates that the site could face serious legal challenges.
"I worry for the author of the site," she said.
Baumgartner, for his part, remains optimistic.
"I hope to get investors and advertisements soon," he said.
Philips thinks he should look for something else.
"This is real vote fraud taking place on the Internet. I don't care how you couch it. I hope this guy has some good pro bono lawyers backing him up."
Constituent puts vote up for sale on eBay
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