By the time polls close in the US Presidential Election, the Obama and Romney campaigns will have spent a combined $2bn+.
Enough states are safely in one camp or the other that campaigns naturally concentrate resources on swing states and on undecided voters within those states. The New York Times calculated that that only about 5% of the electorate really decide elections and Forbes made some very reasonable assumptions to conclude that the campaigns each spend about $115 per person on snagging the votes that matter.
Not all of that is direct advertising; much is spent on adminstration & organisation such as travel costs, paying salaries and the basic logistics of a campaign. If I was to make some slightly more tenuous assumptions than Forbes did, I’d suggest that only about a third ends up in material directly designed to influence the opinion of a swing state undecided voter i.e. about $40. That’s what the campaigns think your vote is worth, even if you’re the most valuable voter out there. They value most voters far less.
It raises the question: what would be the actual value of a vote, if it could be legally sold? Are the current campaigns overpaying or getting a bargain?
We generally use money as a means to calculate value as it allows an abstraction to define the price at which both buyer and seller are willing to exchange an item. Selling a vote is illegal but we can still consider the theoretical value it would have. Some people will assign such a high value to their vote for reasons of conscience that it would be unsellable. I would suggest that more people say they’d never sell their vote than would be true if faced with the prospect of real money in their hands, but I won’t push that point here.
In any event, such extremely conscientious voters are likely to already be strongly in one camp or another anyway, and so are not valuable to a campaign. Voters certain to vote for you already have no value as you don’t have to buy them (which is why campaigns target swing states & undecided voters in the first place). There are certainly some highly principled undecided voters who would also never sell but I suggest that their numbers would be outweighed by the number of soft “decided” voters who could be persuaded away from their party if the dollar amount paid for their vote was high enough.
Conventional theory suggests that the value of a vote should follow a set of elasticity curves. The campaigns already assign a range of values to your vote, based on how likely it is to win an election. But if votes could be sold, individual voters could set their own prices, based on whatever criteria they choose. They could price it according to their conscience, or according to how much the party is likely to cost them if elected, or, well, anything they like. The market value of an individual vote would be whatever the intersection is between your value determinants and that of the parties.
Moreover, it’s possible that enough voters in states that currently lean somewhat one in candidate’s direction would be willing to directly sell their vote, moving that state into the toss-up category. The supply of votes for sale would be greater than the current situation, but the electoral college system would disperse that supply across a larger number of states, thus empowering a larger percentage of the population than is currently the case. The number of swing states might even double. And campaigns would probably have to directly buy a higher number of votes in even safe states than they currently do through indirect means.
So what would be the net impact of letting votes be openly bought & sold on an exchange?
- A larger number of people, across a larger number of states, would find that their vote has meaningful value.
- A larger percentage of the electorate would vote
- Election campaigns would be redistributive, transferring large sums of money from a small number of people and corporations to a wide cross-section of the population, acting as a direct economic stimulus.
- They would still prioritise swing states and undecided voters, but would have a larger number of swing states and undecided voters to target.
- They would probably find they have to spend more than they currently do and that it would take several elections to figure out how much to still spend on advertising versus direct payments to voters (remember, advertising has potential to convince you to vote for a party anyway or to lower the amount required to pay you to vote for them).
- They would need some form of contract for the vote purchase, most likely transferring your voting right to them centrally to ensure it was used in the manner paid for.
There is of course a wider question here: would it – theoretically – be fair & just to allow votes to be bought & sold legally?
Most people instinctively rail against the concept, but I’d suggest that the above shows that there would be significant benefits in terms of fairness and natural justice.
- More people’s votes would matter; more people would feel enfranchised.
- The economics would be redistributive, moving money from a small number of rich people & organisations to a large number of poor ones.
- There would be a broad economic stimulus, leading to more jobs and more growth.
- There would probably be less intrusive & unwanted advertising.
- It’s more honest and open about the electoral process than the current system.
The traditional counter-arguments to vote-buying are that it puts power in the hands of those with the deepest pockets and that it therefore distorts a democracy. This strikes me as a somewhat disingenuous argument as the current situation is already a highly distorted democracy with power in the hands of those with deepest pockets. Moreover, much current indirect vote-buying occurs through lobbying and pork-barrel deals where elected politicians can demand the most money – albeit indirectly – for their votes. If the actual election result can be traded transparently and openly, the need to lobby representatives after the fact diminishes. And as to the point that it is a distortion or sullying of the democratic process to trade votes, this already occurs through voters analysing which party will benefit them the most. Is it really logically much different to permit a more overt trading of votes? It may seem “icky” but in practice is not signficantly different to the current situation; it simply removes the fictional veneer that it doesn’t already happen indirectly and would make it a more open and cleaner process. If anything, it gives power back to individual voters to demand something concrete and real from parties instead of illusory promises and pledges. And I think campaigns would find that the cost of a meaningful vote would increase compared to the current $40-ish.
Naturally, the above is deliberately provocative and controversial, and to a large extent I’m playing Devil’s Advocate to illustrate the farce of current the current political situation. I certainly don’t expect either the US or UK (where I live) electoral systems to ever allow vote trading. But when so much money is expended by campaigns already, and with them already placing a very real monetary value on our votes, is it really such an outlandish and unremittingly negative proposal any more?
Enjoy Election 2012!