Michael O'Connor Clarke, a British subject who lives in Canada, will be voting for John Kerry in the presidential election in November. So will Sarah Redman, an Australian citizen and half of a lesbian couple looking to move to the United States but unable to under current immigration laws. And so will Scott Steahl, a sophomore at the University of California at San Diego. Steahl became eligible to vote two years ago, and by the grace of vote-exchanging, he'll do so twice in the fall.
This is what voter fraud looks like in cyberspace: borderless, lawless, dubious in motivation and totally unverifiable. Clarke, Redman and Steahl bartered invitations for free Google e-mail accounts to anonymous college students who pledged to vote Democratic. Others go about exchanging votes -- or, more accurately, exchanging promises of votes -- in ways that vary from the patently illegal (selling them on private Web logs or on eBay) to the potentially legal (swapping them for other votes in battleground states) to the purposefully sardonic (protesting the influence of corporations).
Some attempting to sell their votes in these forums are looking for money. Some buying want influence. But all are out to make a statement, be it that this presidential election is a matter of "choosing between two faces on the same body," in the words of 27-year-old Justis Weller, who tried to sell his vote in the California gubernatorial election last year; or "anybody but Bush," as it is for the 40-year-old Clarke; or "I'm ambivalent and therefore experimental," which is a fair approximation of 36-year-old Gregg Henson's position and which translated into a failed plan to sell his vote on eBay for $500.
Heard at once, these pronouncements blend into incoherence, the kind of muddle that would give the election-crime lawyers at the Department of Justice a headache. Individually, though, they speak to the divergent quality of modern disenfranchisement. People sell votes for the same reason some speculate Al Sharpton runs for president, because it's a way to say something bold and public and negative about the current state of affairs. People buy votes because they feel one is no longer enough or five are no longer enough to express their political views. People swap votes because geography matters as much as preference.
There are those in the vote-exchange market who love politics and hate John Kerry or George W. Bush, like Sarah Redman, 22, who hopes someday to live with her girlfriend in the United States. Redman says she is unable to get a work or student visa to move here and has sought votes for Kerry because she believes a Democratic administration would be more likely to expand immigration laws to include homosexual partners of U.S. citizens. "I understand that some of these people may not vote at all, let alone vote Democratic," she wrote in an e-mail from Australia. "But still, there's a chance that they will."
There are also those who hate politics and can't tell the difference between the two, or don't care to, like Ray Baumgardner, a 39-year-old paralegal in San Diego who says that in light of the Florida recount in 2000, when so many chads dangled and butterfly ballots were invalidated, he feels his vote is essentially worthless. Then again, he says, "if somebody wants to attach some value to it, I'm happy to let them. I mean, I wouldn't take a nickel for it, but if somebody made a good offer -- "
One similar eBay seller, who offered his vote for $19.99 and got no takers, explained himself this way:
A few of you have asked why I'm doing this and I'll be happy to tell you. This is my first time voting in a presidential election, and although at one time in my life I couldn't wait to vote, I am now fairly apathetic about politics. I had decided not to vote at all when I thought that maybe I could help somebody else by voting their way.
Add to these buyers and sellers those who are just frustrated with campaign finance reform or the electoral college system. In 2000, tens of thousands signed up to sell their votes at the satirical Voteauction.com and its foreign-based successor site, Vote-auction.com, as a way of protesting corporate influence in campaigns.
Meanwhile, Alan Porter, 33, a computer programmer in Reno, Nev., created Votexchange2000.com, a Web site that allowed third-party voters in swing states to meet up with voters in states that were heavily Democratic or Republican. For example, a Nader voter in Florida could pledge to vote for Gore in exchange for a Gore voter in Texas agreeing to vote for Nader.
More than a dozen similar sites cropped up at the same time, but many shut down before the November vote under pressure from state election officials. With the help of the ACLU, Porter is currently fighting a First Amendment battle against the California secretary of state, who threatened legal action in October 2000, forcing Porter's site and others to close before the election. If he wins the lawsuit, Porter says, he plans to launch Votexchange2004.com, a domain name he purchased two weeks after the 2000 election.
Historically, vote-selling, buying, bartering and otherwise exchanging has consistently been a part of the American election process. In 1757, George Washington is said to have bought liquor for all 391 members of his district to win a seat in the Virginia House of Burgesses. In the century that followed, people sold votes because they were poor and needed coal, food and jobs. Or they sold votes because the political bosses and party machines that were powerful in the 1800s compelled them to with economic incentives or physical threats. Before progressive reforms brought about the secret ballot at the end of the 19th century, voters brought their own color-coded ballots to the polls, says Nathaniel Persily, a professor of law and political science at the University of Pennsylvania. This made determining a voter's choice particularly simple.
The secret, or Australian, ballot sharply reduced the frequency of voter impropriety, but attempts to buy and sell votes still occur: In Dodge City, Ga., in 1996, for example, 21 people were indicted for offering $20 to $60 to voters to turn the election in one candidate's favor. Voter fraud falls under state jurisdiction and penalties vary, but they generally include several hundred dollars in fines and less than a year in jail. However, selling or buying a vote in a federal election is a federal crime, punishable by a maximum of five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
With those potential consequences in mind, 34-year-old Eldon Faulkner of Flint, Mich., bid $102.50 this month when Gregg Henson put his vote for president up for sale on eBay. After only a few hours, Henson, a radio talk show host, canceled the auction at eBay's request. Hani Durzy, an eBay spokesman, says that before every presidential election, a number of people inevitably get the same idea, but "never more than I could count on one or two hands." The auction site gives them the benefit of the doubt, he says, assuming that they intended to make a point, not do anything illegal. Still, per company policy, all illegal sales must come down.
After Henson took his vote off the block, Faulkner, a corporate trainer who teaches the art of salesmanship, called to find out if Henson still wanted to sell, but he declined. Faulkner says he was willing to go as high as $200 but not to express apathy or anger or frustration with politics. He just wanted to make a statement that a vote is worth more as a commodity than as an expression of civic responsibility.
Faulkner's motivation is democracy at its most dispassionate: pure capitalism -- but in his case with a twinge of heart. He wanted to buy Henson's vote, then turn around and sell it again, along with his own vote and a box of chads his mother sent him after the Florida recount four years ago. His transaction would have been done in the name of charity: In exchange for his basic right as a U.S. citizen, Faulkner says, he hoped to make a few hundred dollars to split between organizations promoting juvenile diabetes research and animal welfare.