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Harvesting and selling votes

Joe Biden has won the presidential election, although President Trump alleges fraud.  Mr. Trump, however, has not yet offered credible evidence of fraud.  The current controversy involves “vote harvesting” and raises questions about the effect of selling votes.

Vote harvesting involves individuals collecting mail-in ballots from voters.  Clearly persons with limited mobility should receive assistance in voting, which relatives, legal guardians, and election officials can generally provide.  Harvesting involves other persons – including party officials – collecting ballots.

Harvesting creates a potential for misconduct.  Altering or deliberately destroying ballots clearly constitutes fraud.  Ensuring that legal voter cast ballots is not, however, fraud.

Let’s assume that harvesting only enables registered voters to cast unaltered ballots.  A harvester will likely learn which candidate a person voted for, effectively eliminating a secret ballot.  How might this matter?

Introduction of the secret ballot reduced vote buying by thwarting contracting for votes.  If Candidate X wants to buy Jane’s vote, he will want to ensure that Jane does vote for him.  A secret ballot prevents Jane from demonstrating that she voted for X, making X less willing to buy her vote.

Who is hurt if Jane willingly votes for Candidate X in exchange for $100?  Not Candidate X, who happily pays for the vote, nor Jane, for whom $100 is worth more than the cost of voting for X.  X’s opponent is harmed, but similarly to the harm suffered by Pepsi when someone buys Coke; we normally dismiss such “harm” from market competition.  With a legal vote market, X’s opponent could also try to buy Jane’s vote.

People could also trade votes among themselves.  As a resident of Troy, Alabama, I get to vote for local, state, and national offices.  If I cared the most about local elections, I could trade my votes in national races for extra votes in city elections. Elected representatives regularly “sell” their votes on bills.  Vote trading among legislators is called logrolling.  A representative from an agricultural state may trade her vote on an urban transportation bill for votes on a farm bill.  Rural state residents might prefer that only the farm bill pass but accept the farm and transportation bills together as better than neither passing.  Logrolling enables the building of coalitions.

We might object to political candidates buying our votes.  But candidates already try “buy” our votes, through campaign promises or ads on television or social media.  The cost of ads makes candidates eager to make deals with campaign contributors.  Negative ads often more effectively sway voters while slowly poisoning our political climate.  Letting politicians pay for votes at least provides the voter a tangible benefit from political campaigns.

Vote buying might involve contracts spelling out a candidate’s promises.  Contracts could alert voters to inconsistent promises, like if a candidate signs deals to support and oppose gun control.  Voters might have a legal remedy against candidates who renege on promises.  Imagine if politicians had to pay us for breaking campaign promises.

What harm results from eliminating the secret ballot?  Candidates and parties could use negative incentives – the loss of a job or government benefits and violence – in addition to buying votes.  Furthermore, a political machine could refuse to prosecute their thugs terrorizing their opponents.

I find a market for votes worth considering but do not favor eliminating secret ballots.  I also believe that vote harvesting will be a temporary issue.  Technology should soon allow electronic voting with biometric security at least as good as online banking.  Only duly registered voters will cast ballots, and likely from home. 

Improved voting technology could citizens to vote for ourselves as opposed to relying on representatives.  States already rely on ballot referenda to enact or repeal legislation.  Technology could let citizens vote to pass bills.  Exploring the consequences of direct legislation will have to wait for a future day.

Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University and host of Econversations on TrojanVision.  The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Troy University.

About Dan Sutter

I am the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University.

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