October 23, 2000 4:00 PM PDT
Vote auction site attempts to skirt shutdown order
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The Web site, formerly Voteauction.com, reappeared on the Net over the weekend under a new address run from outside the United States and beyond the easy reach of election officials.
"The Web site may have started as a parody, but we don't think it's a joke," said Thomas Leach, spokesman for the Chicago Board of Elections, which last Wednesday won an injunction ordering the site taken down. "It's encouraging U.S. citizens to break the law."
The idea for the site, now Vote-auction.com, is to capitalize on undecided voters who planned on sitting out the November presidential election. Uncommitted voters can sell their votes to the Web site. The votes are then auctioned to the highest bidder, who decides which presidential candidate gets them.
About 1,131 Illinois voters have participated in this questionable practice, according to the Web site. In California, 2,546 voters have so far taken part in the auction. Selling votes carries a maximum three-year federal prison term.
It is unclear whether the votes being auctioned are legitimate. But with the balance of the presidential election hanging on a thin margin, the authorities aren't taking any chances.
"Could it affect the outcome of the elections? Yes," Leach said. "Should it? No."
Created by James Baumgartner, a graduate student in New York, and later sold to a group of investors in Austria, the Web site has U.S. election officials up in arms.
Authorities in New York, Illinois and California moved to shut down the site, with Chicago's election commission winning an injunction last week against Baumgartner, Austrian entrepreneur Hans Bernhard and three others, as well as Domain Bank, the registrar that provided the Internet address. As part of the court order, the judge specifically said Voteauction.com could not appear on the Net under a different name.
After the order, Bernhard found a foreign registrar that issued a new, but slightly changed, Web address.
Bernhard could not immediately be reached for comment, but information on his site declares that bidding on votes "works for, not against democracy." It also says he had huge reader support to keep the site in operation.
Leach said the Chicago election commission has asked for help from the Austrian Embassy in Washington, D.C., to permanently shut down Bernhard's business. The court injunction has also been delivered to the Ministry of Austria.
"They're in defiance of a legitimate court order and in contempt of the American judicial system," Leach said of Bernhard and the others involved in Vote-auction.com.