Votes For Sale - From Austria

The nutria, or coypu (Myocastor coypus), was introduced into the United States in 1899 in California for the furfarming industry.
U.S. Geological Survey
His country's own dubious political history notwithstanding, a Vienna, Austria, man has purchased a controversial political satire Web site, which claims to be buying and selling votes in the U.S. presidential election.

Hans Bernhard of Vienna now runs the site, which claims to be cutting out the middleman in the electoral process. The site says that by selling one's vote directly, it would no longer be necessary for special interest groups to donate money to candidates who would then spend that money for advertising in an attempt to win votes.

Officials in at least four U.S. states have investigated, sued or are preparing lawsuits involving vote-auction.com.

What the uppity Austrian - or his predecessor - have not yet made clear is how the site can deliver its product.

Bernhard bought the site from James Baumgartner, a student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., who claims he established it as a master's thesis. He said he was going to create an art project with the news media coverage of the site.

Baumgartner said his intent was satire: "Our candidates are for sale, and by selling themselves they are treating the election as a commodity. By treating elections as commodities the next step is to treat votes like commodities."

He had the site running this summer but said he closed it in late August under pressure from New York officials. Bernhard bought it for one Euro, less than a dollar, and restarted it.

Buying and selling votes is forbidden by federal and state laws, which prompted officials in California and Nebraska to investigate.

"It's unclear whether the people who are participating in the site are serious or how exactly they would get paid," said Steve Grasz, Nebraska deputy attorney general. "Whether it is for real or not, I think it is a serious thing even to offer to buy votes."

The Chicago Board of Elections won a temporary restraining order to stop the site's operations in Illinois until a lawsuit is heard challenging internet sales and purchases of votes. But the site is no longer even registered in the United States - it switched its registrar earlier this month to CSL Computer Service of Germany.

"Here they are, providing a forum, whether a parody or not, to encourage people to violate the law," said elections board spokesman Tom Leach.

Massachusetts voting officials also are drafting a lawsuit that would force the auction site to cease trafficking in votes there. Wisconsin Attorney General James Doyle filed suit Tuesday asking the courts to ban the site from operating in his state.

"Internet companies cannot be allowed to use this great new technology to run roughshod over the laws that apply to people who live in this state," Doyle said.

Bernhard claims, without proof, to have been offered $260,000 for more than 21,000 votes. Even if that could be verified, there is no way to prove how the 2,000 votes would have been cast.