SACRAMENTO — A Web site offering to sell 15,000 votes for president to the highest bidder is being investigated for possible voter fraud, Secretary of State Bill Jones said Monday.
His announcement prompted the Austrian owners of the site, http://www.voteauction.com, to promise they would never reveal the identity of either their bidders or voters.
More than 1,800 of the votes up for sale are from Californians, the most of any state. The going price Monday afternoon was $19.61 per vote on the site, which boasts it is “bringing capitalism and democracy closer together.”
“This is a felony punishable by upward of three years in prison (for the voter). This is no different from standing outside a polling place and selling your vote for $1,” said Jones.
Controlling the activities of international investors could be difficult for the state, but it could try to prosecute its own voters. Jones wouldn’t say Monday how the state planned to identify participants.
Even people who sign up as a joke are essentially agreeing to commit vote fraud, Jones added.
The site was designed by James Baumgartner, an Overland Park, Kans., native who is a graduate student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York. He sold the site in August to a group of Austrian investors for an undisclosed sum.
Hans Bernhard, a project investor, said he will take the site off the Internet before revealing the identity of voters.
“We have to protect our voters. They are really critical,” he said in a telephone interview from Vienna, Austria, adding that the only letter he has received that threatened legal action was from Jones.
“I know American institutions, especially legal and government institutions, threaten massively and that’s how they solve things, they make people afraid. We aren’t afraid because there is no clear indication that something serious can come out of this,” Bernhard said.
Project investors are using the November election as a pilot program to determine how the scheme can become profitable and ensure the voters get paid for participation, he said.
They plan to expand the site to all countries’ elections, he said.
The Web site allows voters to sign up by filling out their name, address, age, nationality, and household income. Corporations and individuals can bid for an entire block of votes from one state by providing similar information.
The minimum bid is $100 and goes up in $50 increments. Bids above $10,000 must go up by $500.
The site was registered by Domain Bank Inc. under a contract that mandates all applicable laws must be followed, including U.S. election laws.
Domain Bank attorney Scott Hemphill said Monday that his company notified the Austrian owners that it has received Jones’ complaint and asked the owners to either stop auctioning votes or refute the allegations of vote fraud. The deadline is Nov. 14.
If Bernhard and other owners of the site do not respond to the letter, Domain Bank could stop its Internet access, Hemphill said.
Domain Bank’s Nov. 14 deadline is after Election Day, after the damage could be done, Jones said.
Election officials in Illinois, Michigan and New York have also objected to the site.
The Internet address has already been frozen so the investors cannot sell the site. But there is nothing Domain Bank can do to keep the investors from moving the site to another address, Hemphill said.
Jones said he issued the warning to state voters because the site could remain working until after the election on Nov. 7.
He said he did not think announcing details of the investigation would contribute to the traffic on the site.
However, the Web site states that since the Illinois investigation started, hits from Illinois voters have doubled.
On the Net: The site is http://www.voteauction.com
The Secretary of State’s Web site: http://www.ss.ca.gov