Last year, James Baumgartner of Albany, N.Y., caused a media firestorm with his satirical Web site, Voteauction.com, which invited citizens to sell their votes to the highest bidder. It was a real new economy business model: Why not do an end run around all those fat-cat middlemen -- the political consultants, lobbyists and pollsters -- and let all the cash being spent to buy votes go straight to the people?
In the 2000 election buildup and aftermath, more than 1,000 media outlets reported on the site that, like other attempts to sell votes, gave the media a chance to cover campaign finance reform in a funny light. But less than a year later, Baumgartner, 26, is $3,800 in the hole in legal bills.
This Saturday night, there will be an "emergency benefit" in San Francisco at the Other Cinema at Artists' Television Access to help pay Baumgartner's legal debts. Baumgartner will be flying in from Boston, where he now lives, to give what's being billed as "a PowerPoint presentation on the benefits of the merger of capital and democracy."
"I talk to the audience as if they're shareholders and I present Voteauction as if it's a viable business model," he says. "I like to make an analogy to TV. The product of TV is people. The viewers are sold to the advertisers, and in return they get an entertainment or sports or news product. In the election industry, the voters are sold to the candidates via the political consultants and advertising."
His pitch: "There's billions of dollars going around, but the voters aren't getting anything out of it except mediocre candidates. Why not bring that money directly to the consumer? Change it from a B-to-B to a B-to-C business model." And there's certainly a huge market. "I was targeting the 50 percent of the population that doesn't vote."
By giving speeches at places like Skidmore College, Baumgartner has recouped about $900 to cover legal fees incurred when he was personally named as a defendant in a suit alleging election fraud brought in Chicago's Circuit Court of Cook County. Eventually, the Illinois branch of the American Civil Liberties Union took up his case, which is still pending. "I think I have a pretty clear free speech case," he says.
The joke about the lawsuits against Voteauction.com -- there have been 13 in all, many of which have since been dropped -- is that no votes were actually sold. But the original Voteauction.com site was shut down after that first lawsuit brought by Chicago officials, who saw the site as an act of election fraud, not a pointed art project from the merry wags of the "culture-jamming" group ®TMark, which counts Baumgartner among its "agents." VoteAuction.com then reopened at a new URL, where it's owned and operated by Hans Bernhard, an Austrian artist.
®TMark is a scattered, global network of artists who critique capitalism by creating and distributing products that mock its excesses. They were co-conspirators with the etoy pranksters who created a Web site that ultimately outlasted the litigious online toy retailer eToys.com, which took it on in a trademark dispute.
But with eToys.com kaput, and the election old news, the ®TMark "agents" as they call themselves have moved on to a slew of new projects, including turning those annoying CueCat bar code scanners, which facilitate shopping at home, into a tool for disseminating information about nefarious corporate behavior.
While Baumgartner fundraises his way out of his current legal woes, it looks like the other ®TMark agents will keep walking the line between parody and law bending. Like many of the ®TMark projects, Voteauction.com is basically a clever joke that ran the risk of being too subtle for humor-impaired keepers of law and order. Says Baumgartner, "They thought that it was an actual auction, but there weren't any votes being sold. It was kind of a high concept satire on the election industry."
Still, compared to most corporate P.R. budgets, $3,800 is a fairly small price to pay to get hundreds of media outlets to spread the word.