Sunday, 4 November 2012

Should votes be for sale?

Ahead of Tuesday’s U.S. Presidential election, Stephen Levitt, citing the work of Glen Weyl, has made a provocative suggestion for improving the electoral process – people should be permitted to vote multiple times, paying increasingly higher fees for each additional vote. I’m attracted to this idea because it addresses one of the major drawbacks of ‘one man, one vote’, that every vote counts the same, regardless of how strong the preference expressed is. It is problematic (to me, at least – others may have different intuitions) that a vote cast by a fervent anti-Republican, who fears that a Romney victory would be as calamitous as a zombie apocalypse should be cancelled out by the vote of someone who thinks the candidates are much the same, but that Romney just has the edge. To be clear, the objection is not that the former voter is better informed or qualified to vote, just that they feel stronger about the issues – the opinionated but ignorant would still be likely to buy plenty of votes.
A trivial example should make my intuition clear. Suppose a group of people are trying to decide what topping to get on their pizza. Four people have a weak desire to get prawn, while two have a weak desire not to get prawn. Meanwhile, one person is strongly against prawn because it will cause them to have a severe allergic reaction, and require them to go to hospital. If the decision is put to a simple majority vote, the group will opt for prawn, 4-3. Yet it seems wrong to me that the preferences of those who gain so little from having the prawn should be counted equally with the person who is allergic. For a more clearly political example, perhaps the views of those enjoying a modest tax cut should not be counted equally alongside the person who loses vital services to pay for the cuts.

The obvious objection to the vote buying proposal, which Levitt discusses, is that it gives disproportionate political power to the rich. His response is unconvincing – he points out that such a transparent system would be better than the status quo, where the rich exert greater influence through campaign finance. But that is just an argument to reform campaign finance, not to create an alternative way to perpetuate the inequity.

Moreover, the objection is deeper than Levitt appreciates - insofar as the vote buying scheme gives greater power to the rich, it fails in its attempt to reflect the strength of voters’ views, because it fails to account for the law of diminishing marginal utility. The logic behind the vote buying scheme, as I understand it, is that it forces people to put their money where their mouth is. In buying $50 worth of votes for the Republicans, I am showing that a Republican government is worth $50 to me. The trouble is that that $50 is a much more powerful statement when it comes from a poorer person, involving a more significant sacrifice on their part. If $50 pledged to the Republicans means giving up a meal at a nice restaurant, and person A dines at nice restaurants regularly, while for B it is an annual treat, then it is clear that B wants the Republicans to win more.

The obvious way to reflect this would be to make voting fees progressive i.e. proportionate to income. So the richer you are, the more you have to pay to vote.

Even with this amendment, there are two types of concern I have about the scheme. On one hand, I am sceptical as to whether this measure would be successful in achieving its own stated goal - to successfully reflect public opinion. On the other hand, I wonder whether this goal is the only desirable one to have.

The first reason for scepticism about vote buying accurately capturing people’s real views is that it depends on people being able to provide an accurate and meaningful valuation of how much an electoral outcome is worth to them. Yet as behavioural economists such as Dan Ariely have shown, this is something most people struggle to do without a set of reference prices for context (do you have a clear idea, right now, how much you would be willing to pay for a certain number of votes in the next election?) This is further complicated by the fact that people wouldn’t be buying a Romney or Obama victory, but just the mere possibility of being decisive one way or the other.

Even if people could accurately gauge how much their vote is worth, the market for votes might still be distorted. Just because a person is willing to  pay $100 to vote for Obama, this might not fully be a reflection of their endorsement of the president. People might pay a voting fee for all sorts of reasons, just as people vote for all sorts of reasons just now – out of a sense of civic obligation, to express gratitude for the historical sacrifices of their forebears, out of a sense of power. Each of these motivations means that the amount they pay for their vote will fail to track their enthusiasm for the candidates.

A more fundamental objection to the vote buying scheme is that it fails to understand hat voting is really about. It could be argued that it is not just about taking a snapshot of public opinion, but that it has some other function, which is subverted by vote buying. For example, political theorists have long argued that democracy has an educative value – by giving citizens the responsibility of a say in how the country is run, they are encouraged to live up to that faith by engaging with politics, developing and trusting their own judgement. If engagement with politics becomes a prerequisite of voting, then those who are not inclined to involve themselves in politics will simply shrug off this responsibility, and opt not to develop these faculties.

Whatever you think about the vote buying proposal, it offers an illuminating challenge to the way democracy proceeds just now – does it really expose an important problem with the status quo? And if so, what is wrong with its proposed solution? In answering these questions, we get a clearer idea of the strengths and weaknesses of democracy, and why (if at all) we value it.


  1. A vote is like a rifle; its usefulness depends upon the character of the user.

  2. i do agree that votes should not be sold by doing so we are promoting corruption in our selves. we should be cautious in our acts especially in choosing the right leader for our country.