Last Tuesday, an eBay user offered his vote to the highest bidder, and five copycat vote-sellers followed suit. Meanwhile, James Baumgartner, a graduate student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, had launched Vote-auction.com, an Internet marketplace for the wholesale purchase of votes. The model was simple: Recruit willing voters, auction them off in state blocs, double-check their absentee ballots for accuracy, and split the proceeds evenly. The schemes generated a lot of media attention and some sellers and buyers—the bidding on eBay reached $10,100, and Vote-auction found 200 takers in a single day.
But it was all over inside a week. Baumgartner shut down Vote-auction after his academic adviser received a call from the state board of elections, and he sold the content and domain name to an Austrian company. eBay pulled all six auctions after a day.
The problem is that vote-buying and -selling is clearly illegal. Every state prohibits a market in votes, and buying or selling votes in a federal election is a federal crime punishable by a $10,000 fine and five years in jail. (So far, no Internet vote-sellers have been charged.) Though Baumgartner isn’t testing it, he has suggested that he could mount a defense on the grounds that money equals speech, a reference to the landmark Supreme Court decision in Buckley vs. Valeo, which struck down campaign spending limits and is anathema to campaign-finance reformers. In fact, a Buckley defense would fail. In 1982, the court ruled (in Brown vs. Hartlage) that buying, selling, or arranging to buy or sell votes is not constitutionally protected speech.
Baumgartner insists that votes have been for sale in America at least since 1757, when George Washington bought alcohol for every voter in his House of Burgesses district. But the reality of colonial corruption was rarely so simple. Voters were tied to each other through business and family connections, and a man was expected to vote for his patrons.
Flagrant vote-buying came into prominence with the expansion of the franchise and the rise of the political boss in the mid-1800s. Big-city machines routinely got out the vote by paying for it with cash on election morning. The practice was so common that cartoonist Thomas Nast started his career depicting it (click here for an example). On a deeper level, the machines unapologetically operated on the principle of giving favors for votes. Poor voters especially could count on food, coal, and patronage jobs as long as they voted with the boss.
By the late 1800s, reformers were sure the machines had corrupted democracy. They pushed for secret ballots and Australian ballots (as opposed to pre-marked party ballots) in part so that bosses could never be sure who voted for whom. Most political machines broke down by the 1920s, and yet a vote-buying scandal still crops up every few years. In 1996, for instance, 21 Georgians were indicted for selling their votes in a county election for $50 apiece.
Some experts saw the abortive Internet vote auctions as old-style machine politics with a high-tech twist. The chairman of the Voting Integrity Project, a conservative front group, called Vote-auction an “obscenity” and warned of a “bloodless coup.” But few would disagree that the problem with money in politics today is the hundreds of millions of dollars at the top, not a few dollars at the bottom. Which is why the short-lived vote sale should be seen less as a serious act of sabotage and more as guerrilla theater.
One eBay seller confirmed that the auction of his vote was a “political prank.” His original posting included the following description: “Why should the American citizen be left out? Congressmen and senators regularly sell their vote to the highest bidder. Democracy for sale!”
Baumgartner’s intentions are harder to figure because he never recanted or even cracked a smile, but his sense of irony is undeniable. According to Baumgartner, the biggest spenders invariably win elections today, but they do it messily, with big advertising budgets and paid consultants. Vote-auction, he claimed, would bring market efficiency to the electoral process by “cutting out the middle man.” Vote-auction’s slogan? “Bringing Democracy and Capitalism Closer Together.”
Ralph Nader’s now-famous MasterCard parody makes the same point (click here to see the ad), as did the protesters outside the conventions when they offered delegates money for their credentials. Many campaign-finance reformers, including Sheila Krumholz of the Center for Responsive Politics and American University law professor Jamin Raskin, have said they appreciate the vote-selling sentiment, though they would deplore the practice.
John Bonifaz, the executive director of the National Voting Rights Institute, said the vote auctions are indeed bribery, but so is “a lot of what goes on in the halls of Congress and in the White House.” What Baumgartner and the eBay seller did is “only one or two steps removed from the existing campaign-finance system,” Bonifaz said.