Vote Selling and Voter Behavior

One of the characteristics of a secret ballot is that others can’t tell how you voted. This might protect voters from harassment or intimidation, but it also prevents voters from providing assurance to others about how they voted. A voter might have claimed to have voted a certain way, but the secret ballot means that others can never be sure.

The secret ballot is a barrier to voters selling their votes because the purchaser cannot be certain that the seller voted as promised. Mail-in voting reduces this impediment to selling one’s vote. The purchaser can watch the voter complete the ballot, or even complete the ballot for the seller. Buying votes becomes easier with mail-in ballots.

There are already concerns about ballot harvesting, in which one individual collects ballots from many others to deposit in drop boxes. It’s a small step from collecting ballots from many others and “helping” those voters fill in their ballots. And while ballot harvesting is aimed at ballots turned in to election officials, there is little to stop the ballot harvester from just mailing in those ballots.

This should be a bigger issue in local elections. One ballot harvester is unlikely to have much of an impact on a presidential election, or even a Congressional election, but in smaller jurisdictions, city council and mayoral elections might be tempting targets.

While voters might be more likely to let friends or family members fill out their ballots for them, the possibility that mail-in ballots could be sold leaves open the opportunity for entrepreneurial individuals to find a way to do it that avoids legal prosecution.

Having considered the issue, why shouldn’t people be able to sell their votes? Legislators do it all the time. Their votes are a matter of public record, so when they strike deals such as “I’ll vote for your bill if you vote for mine” or “I’ll support your bill if you include some pork barrel project for my district,” the legislators who bought those votes can check the public record to make sure the vote seller followed through.

Everybody knows that it is common practice for legislators to trade their votes for some benefit to themselves. Why is it OK for legislators to do this, but not citizen voters?

One answer is that the legislative exchange that occurs often produces benefits for well-organized interests at the expense of the general public, so legislative institutions should be modified to prevent this from happening. (That won’t happen, because it would require legislative action that would be against the interests of legislators.)

By the same token, election institutions should be designed to prevent well-organized interest groups from exerting undue influence in elections. One way to do that is to severely limit mail-in voting to only those voters who would be unable to vote in person.

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.
Beacon Posts by Randall G. Holcombe | Full Biography and Publications
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