Online vote bidding declared a Web hoax

After changing its Web address twice to avoid the long arm of U.S. law, halted its quest to sell ballots to the highest bidder and said it had been a hoax all along.

In an apparent effort to draw attention to the link between campaign financing and the ballot box, the Web site offered to proffer votes to the highest bidder. But analysts and experts said the prank underscores a need to address the jurisdiction issues that arise from Internet-based businesses.

“We’ve increasingly seen gambling sites try to exploit the legal differences in different areas by moving their services to new locations,” said Jay Stanley, an Internet policy analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. “You can expect an increased amount of cooperation between consumer-protection and antitrust agencies in different countries to address the a-geographical nature of the Internet.”

The site purportedly allowed voters to sell their votes to the highest bidder in blocks broken down by state. The winning bid price was to be divided among voters from that state who had registered on the site.

On the eve of the election this week, 1,116 Massachusetts voters allegedly had registered on the site to sell their votes, which caused that state’s attorney general’s office to seek a court injunction to shut down

The site, launched as an apparent lark by New York graduate student James Baumgartner, was ordered shut down last month after running afoul of the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners under the original name. As part of the court order in the case, the judge said specifically 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 Austrian company. And even though Massachusetts state officials won an injunction, the site changed its name once again, to, on Election Day.

The issue of legal jurisdiction is a contentious one, said Jorge Contreras, an attorney with the Internet law group at Hale and Dorr LLP in Boston. “If you have an activity that is illegal in the United States, even if it’s conducted from outside the country, it is subject to U.S. law,” he said.

Online vote-swapping services also sprang up during weeks leading up to the election. and both tried to persuade Democratic voters in states heavily favoring either Al Gore or George W. Bush to exchange votes with Ralph Nader supporters in hotly contested states.