You can sell just about anything on eBay, so why not your vote? That’s apparently what University of Minnesota student Max Sanders was thinking when, according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, he offered his 2008 vote to the highest bidder on eBay. The offer earned him a criminal investigation an possible felony charge.

Vote selling was rampant in the corrupt politics of the 19th century. One major reform was the adoption of the secret ballot in place of open voting. Buying and selling votes is still regarded as a very serious offense. And this, perhaps surprisingly is a major complication in making electronic voting secure.

Anyone who has looked at the problem of voting machine security will tell you that the problem is made much more difficult by the need to keep transactions anonymous. ATM machines, the inspiration for many electronic voting devices, secure transactions by requiring two forms of identification--a card and a PIN. They photograph each transaction and present you with a printed receipt.

A secret ballot makes buying votes much harder for the simple reason that the purchaser gets no proof that people actually cast their votes the way they were paid to. The need to keep secret ballots secret rules out the simplest method of insuring that electronic machines recorded votes correctly--giving a printed receipt of the ballot to the voter. The effort to make electronic votes both secret and secure--essentially contradictory goals--has led all manner of complex solutions, none of which have proved very satisfactory.

Sanders clearly intended his eBay offer as a prank; he set a minimum bid of just $10. But given the past and present struggles of election officials to keep voting fair and honest, no one should be surprised that the Minnesota authorities were not amused.

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