Should You Be Able to Sell Your Vote?

One of the features of secret ballot elections is that they make it difficult for voters to sell their votes. Even if a voter wants to, and finds a willing buyer, the secret ballot means the voter cannot offer any proof that the voter actually voted the way the vote buyer wanted.

Absentee ballots do not have that feature. Absentee ballots used to be rare, used only when the voter could provide a valid reason to the Supervisor of Elections for not being able to vote on election day. Now, with absentee voting more common, and encouraged, the voter’s vote can be revealed to someone willing to pay for the voter’s vote, making it easier for voters to sell their votes.

While at first one might be uneasy about selling votes, it happens in Congress all the time. Senators and Representatives will agree to support a bill only if it has some specific special interest benefit added to it, and often special interests pay for that support through campaign contributions or other payments to the legislator. People take this for granted, as the way politics works. If it is OK for elected officials to trade or sell their votes, it is not immediately apparent that ordinary citizens should be prevented from selling theirs.

The secret ballot, which once greatly inhibited vote-selling, is giving way to absentee voting, and perhaps internet voting will be more common in the future, further facilitating vote selling. Even the steps we have already taken toward encouraging absentee voting are moving us toward a system where elected offices will truly go to the highest bidder.

Randall G. Holcombe is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, the DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University, and author of the Independent Institute book Liberty in Peril: Democracy and Power in American History.
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