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The Ethics and Rationality of Voting

The Ethics of Vote Buying

(Last Updated On: February 3, 2019)
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Many citizens of modern democracies believe that vote buying and selling are immoral (Tetlock 2000). Many philosophers agree; they argue it is wrong to buy, trade, or sell votes (Satz 2010: 102; Sandel 2012: 104–5). Richard Hasen reviews the literature on vote buying and concludes that people have offered three main arguments against it. He says,

Despite the almost universal condemnation of core vote buying, commentators disagree on the underlying rationales for its prohibition. Some offer an equality argument against vote buying: the poor are more likely to sell their votes than are the wealthy, leading to political outcomes favoring the wealthy. Others offer an efficiency argument against vote buying: vote buying allows buyers to engage in rent-seeking that diminishes overall social wealth. Finally, some commentators offer an inalienability argument against vote buying: votes belong to the community as a whole and should not be alienable by individual voters. This alienability argument may support an anti-commodification norm that causes voters to make public-regarding voting decisions. (Hasen 2000: 1325)

Two of the concerns here are consequentialist: the worry is that in a regime where vote-buying is legal, votes will be bought and sold in socially destructive ways. However, whether vote buying is destructive is a subject of serious social scientific debate; some economists think markets in votes would in fact produce greater efficiency (Buchanan and Tullock 1962; Haefele 1971; Mueller 1973; Philipson and Snyder 1996; Hasen 2000: 1332). The third concern is deontological: it holds that votes are just not the kind of thing that ought be for sale, even if it turned out that vote-buying and selling did not lead to bad consequences.

Many people think vote selling is wrong because it would lead to bad or corrupt voting. But, if that is the problem, then perhaps the permissibility of vote buying and selling should be assessed on a case-by-case basis. Perhaps the rightness or wrongness of individual acts of vote buying and selling depends entirely on how the vote seller votes (J. Brennan 2011a: 135–160; Brennan and Jaworski 2015: 183–194). Suppose I pay a person to vote in a good way. For instance, suppose I pay indifferent people to vote on behalf of women’s rights, or for the Correct Theory of Justice, whatever that might be. Or, suppose I think turnout is too low, and so I pay a well-informed person to vote her conscience. It is unclear why we should conclude in either case that I have done something wrong, rather than conclude that I have done everyone a small public service.

Certain objections to vote buying and selling appear to prove too much; these objections lead to conclusions that the objectors are not willing to support. For instance, one common argument against voting selling is that paying a person to vote imposes an externality on third parties. However, so does persuading others to vote or to vote in certain ways (Freiman 2014: 762). If paying you to vote for X is wrong because it imposes a third party cost, then for the sake of consistency, I should also conclude that persuading you to vote for X, say, on the basis of a good argument, is equally problematic.

As another example, some object to voting markets on the grounds that votes should be for the common good, rather than for narrow self-interest (Satz 2010: 103; Sandel 2012: 10). Others say that voting should “be an act undertaken only after collectively deliberating about what it is in the common good” (Satz 2010: 103). Some claim that vote markets should be illegal for this reason. Perhaps it’s permissible to forbid vote selling because commodified votes are likely to be cast against the common good. However, if that is sufficient reason to forbid markets in votes, then it is unclear why we should not, e.g., forbid highly ignorant, irrational, or selfish voters from voting, as their votes are also unusually likely to undermine the common good (Freiman 2014: 771–772). Further these arguments appear to leave open that a person could permissibly sell her vote, provided she does so after deliberating and provided she votes for the common good. It might be that if vote selling were legal, most or even all vote sellers would vote in destructive ways, but that does not show that vote selling is inherently wrong.

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