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Vote buying in America: who benefits?

By Andrew Leigh - posted Thursday, 30 November 2000

Say "vote buying" to your average political scientist, and he or she will probably respond with "Bangladesh", "Zimbabwe" or "Indonesia". That is, unless they’ve been watching the US election campaign closely, because that’s exactly what’s happening at the moment.

If you are a registered US voter, the process is as simple as logging onto, and checking the going price. Anonymous bidders state their price, depending on which state the voter is from. For example, this week a vote in the safe state of Texas is worth just $4.19, but one in marginal Michigan will garner $22.73. If a majority of voters were willing to sell their votes, winning the Presidency would cost between $200 million and $1.1 billion (based on 1996 turnout figures). Given the power of the Presidency, many interest groups would consider that a steal.

For budding vote-sellers, though, there’s a small catch. Due to a recent court ruling, they won’t actually see the proceeds of their sale. Instead, the money will be donated to a charity of their choice. The amounts on offer appear substantial – with the site’s owner claiming to have been offered over $260 000 by various bidders. This claim is unproven, though we can be certain about something else – officials in at least four states of the US are preparing to take legal action against


Presumably the practice of vote-buying will be quickly stamped out by legislation, but it will much trickier for officials to tackle the other practice that has emerged over the past few weeks: vote swapping. This arises from a simple problem. Gore needs to obtain a majority of electoral college votes (in most states, the candidate who wins the most votes gets all the electoral college votes from that state). Nader needs to win 5 percent of the popular vote, entitling him to Federal matching funds for the 2004 election, but most Nader supporters don’t want Bush to win.

When you think about it, the surprise is that it took until October for someone to come up with a solution that benefits both parties. Gore voters in safe seats agree to vote for Nader in return for Nader voters in marginal seats agreeing to vote for Gore. At least five websites are now dedicated to just this purpose –,,, and

The legality of these sites is unlikely to be tested until well after polling day. In the meantime, those using them argue that what they’re doing is no different from what politicians do every day – you do me a favour, I do you a favour, and we’re both better off. In a country where electors can only tick one box, advocates of vote-swapping contend that it provides the same benefits as preferential voting.

Interestingly, whilst it could provide substantial benefits to both Gore and Nader, vote-swapping has emerged as a purely grassroots movement. Gore is probably glad of it, but for obvious reasons, can’t lend his support. Nader, on the other hand, seems quite happy with the prospect that he might deliver the election to Bush – and perhaps even a little miffed at the emergence of vote-trading.

Whether the next President is Bush or Gore, my guess is that 2001 will see a heated debate over whether or not to wipe out vote-buying and vote-trading. But until then, the United States has once again shown itself to be the country where the market rules supreme.

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About the Author

Andrew Leigh is the member for Fraser (ACT). Prior to his election in 2010, he was a professor in the Research School of Economics at the Australian National University, and has previously worked as associate to Justice Michael Kirby of the High Court of Australia, a lawyer for Clifford Chance (London), and a researcher for the Progressive Policy Institute (Washington DC). He holds a PhD from Harvard University and has published three books and over 50 journal articles. His books include Disconnected (2010), Battlers and Billionaires (2013) and The Economics of Just About Everything (2014).

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