On Vote Markets

Christopher Freiman on Vote Markets at BHL.

(1) As noted, vote markets enable mutually beneficial exchange. Even if that’s not all that counts, it surely counts for something. That vote sales leave both buyers and sellers better off by their own lights is a reason to permit vote sales. Of course, vote sales can also impose costs on third parties. If Sally sells her vote to Brent, who proceeds to use it in support of an unjust, harmful, or otherwise bad candidate or policy, then citizens who are not part of the vote sale can be made worse off. But this point brings me to a second reason to allow vote markets.

(2) Citizens enjoy significant discretion in their use of their vote, including the ability to use their vote in ways that can generate negative externalities. After all, the state doesn’t ban Sally from voting directly for unjust, harmful, or otherwise bad candidates and policies. Since the state generally allows you to use your vote as you see fit, shouldn’t it allow you to sell your vote if you see fit to do so?

(3) Some economists have argued that vote markets enable electoral outcomes to reflect the intensity of citizens’ political preferences. Suppose 51% of the electorate just barelysupports Candidate A over Candidate B. The remaining 49% strongly prefer Candidate B to Candidate A. A vote market would enable supporters of B to buy votes, thus leading to the election of B—which is plausibly the preferable outcome in this election.

(4) Vote buying and selling is similar to other legally permissible democratic practices like earmarking, whereby candidates (promise to) allocate funds to specific projects or recipients to win a given portion of the electorate’s support. If a candidate can “buy” the support of voters by offering them $1,000 worth of subsidies, why can’t that candidate buy the support of voters by offering them $1,000 directly? (Even opponents of vote sales like Sandel recognize this similarity.) At this point, you’re probably thinking that candidates shouldn’t be allowed to buy the support of voters with pork. Fair enough. But if pork barreling and other forms of political favoritism are eliminated, then potential vote buyers would have no incentive to bring about the negative outcomes associated with vote markets—there would be no profit in buying up votes.

For many people, vote markets just don’t pass the smell test. “What an obvious ploy to allow the rich to exert even more influence on elections than they already do,” they might say or maybe, “But it’s the responsibility of citizens to vote for themselves.” As a thoroughly unprincipled person, I’m going to pass on taking the latter objection, but in response to the former, I have to say that these objections represent a pretty negative view of the decision making capabilities of poor people.

Given that people wouldn’t have to sell their vote to the first or highest bidder that came along, I think it’s erroneous to think that the vote markets would automatically favor the wealthy elite. It would likely be much less expensive for a person or organization to buy someone’s vote in favor of something that already aligned with their preferences than in favor of something that went against those preferences. The upside to this is that it would probably be impossibly expensive to buy enough votes to enact something wildly unpopular like segregation laws. While I’m a little less confident about it, I think a similar outcome would occur with things like crop subsidies. Though groups favoring crop subsidies would face lower organizing costs to coordinate buying votes for their preferred subsidies, any group opposed to crop subsidies that could successfully organize to buy opposing votes would likely do so at a lower cost, assuming of course that opposition to crop subsidies was the base preference of most people.

Now, especially wealthy vote buyers may still be able to overcome their opponents through sheer force of dollars in some instances, but even if that occurs we would only be back to the usual situation of the rich influencing votes in their favor only without campaign-industrial complex middle man.

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