State wins injunction against vote auction site

The Massachusetts Attorney General's Office yesterday won a court injunction to shut down Vote-Auction.com, a Web site that has been offering to auction off ballots to the highest bidder

          On the eve of today's presidential election, the Massachusetts Attorney General's Office yesterday won a court injunction to shut down Vote-Auction.com, a Web site that has been offering to auction off ballots to the highest bidder. However, whether the preliminary injunction issued in Boston's Suffolk Superior Court will have any effect remains unclear.

          The Vote-Auction.com site, which was launched as an apparent lark by New York graduate student James Baumgartner under the original name www.voteauction.com, already was ordered to be shut down last month after running afoul of election authorities in Chicago, California and New York. But the site continues to operate under the new name of www.voteauction.enemy.org after being sold by Baumgartner to a group of Austrian entrepreneurs.

          The court hearing in Boston came after Massachusetts Attorney General Tom Reilly, in a civil complaint filed last Friday, charged that it's illegal under that state's law to directly or indirectly offer payments or rewards to voters. "In Massachusetts, votes are not for sale," Reilly said in a statement. "Vote-Auction.com should be shut down to protect anyone from falling prey to what is likely a scam."

          The new owners of the site, and an Austrian Internet service provider that's now hosting it, didn't appear in court today in Boston. But Massachusetts officials "expect them to abide by the court order," said David Kerrigan, an assistant attorney general in the state.

          The injunction "prevents further operation of this Web site and any Web site under a different name with the same purpose and goals," Kerrigan said in an interview. He wouldn't comment on whether Massachusetts would seek additional actions against the Web site or take legal action against voters who registered to sell their ballots through Vote-Auction.com.

          The Vote-Auction.com site purports to allow voters to register to sell their votes to the highest bidder in blocks broken down by state. The starting bid for each state is $US1,000, and bids increase in $50 increments. The winning bid supposedly gets divided among the voters from that state who have registered on the site.

          As of last Thursday, 1,116 Massachusetts voters had registered to sell their votes, according to Reilly's office.

          Last month, the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners and federal and state attorneys sought and won an injunction to shut down the Web site's Chicago and Illinois operations. As part of the court order, the judge in that case specifically said Baumgartner's site couldn't reappear on the Web under a different name.

          But the site resurfaced under its new name and owners, running on a server operated by an Internet service provider based in Austria. According to the site, Vote-Auction.com wants to help voters capitalize on their votes by providing a free-market exchange.

          The latest action against Vote-Auction.com follows an order issued last week by California Secretary of State Bill Jones that an online vote-swapping service being run by a group called Voteswap 2000 was violating that state's election laws.

          According to a statement on the group's Web site, the software that powered the service was voluntarily turned off in order to comply with Jones' order. "We are not lawyers," said the statement. "At the time we set the site up, we understood that what we were doing was legal."

          Voteswap 2000 was trying to convince Democratic voters in states that were leaning heavily to either Al Gore or George W. Bush to exchange their votes with Ralph Nader supporters who live in hotly contested states. The goal was to enable Nader's Green Party to get the 5% vote needed to qualify for federal matching funds in the 2004 election without hurting Gore's chances of winning this time around.

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