Vote buying is a widespread phenomenon. It is usually viewed as a purely economic exchange in which the voter sells his or her vote to the highest bidder. Yet, does this view correspond to reality? What does ‘vote buying’ mean? What different forms does it take in different locales around the world? This paper, presented at an MIT conference, examines vote buying from the perspective of both candidates and voters.
In offering money, goods, or services there are three ways in which givers might hope to get recipients to vote, or not to vote, for a particular candidate. First, givers might hope to produce instrumental compliance. If successful, recipients change their electoral behaviour in exchange for tangible rewards. Second, givers may hope to generate normative compliance. If successful, recipients change their electoral behaviour because the offer convinces them of the goodness or worthiness of the candidate. Third, givers may hope to generate coercive compliance by bullying recipients into changing their electoral behaviour. If successful, recipients fear retribution if they decline the offer. To recipients, the act of accepting an offer may hold a variety of meanings. It might constitute making a contract, securing amends, receiving a gift, accepting an auction bid, recognising power, compromising one’s principles, acknowledging goodwill, or more. In accepting or rejecting offers, or in changing or not changing their electoral behaviour, recipients may be acting, among other things, out of fear, duty, indignity, gratitude, righteousness, or calculated self-interest.
More historically textured or ethnographic accounts reveal that what scholars habitually call ‘vote buying’ carries different meanings in different historical and cultural contexts. It is more than a mere economic transaction. It is a combination of economic exchange and social ritual. Other conclusions from the study are that:
- The choice of offer strategies made by candidates and the meanings attached to offers by voters are shaped by their institutional, socio-economic, and organisational contexts
- The prospect of receiving material offers generates expectations among potential recipients which impose a form of accountability on politicians
- The effectiveness of efforts to eliminate the practice of ‘vote buying’ depends on how well reformers anticipate the menu of offer strategies available to candidates and whether they take into account the particular meanings recipients attach to the offers.
Exploring real world variations gives us as better fix on the range of phenomena conventionally covered by the category “vote buying”. The paper makes it clear that:
- Scholars should abandon the oversimplified view of ‘vote buying’ as a pure market transaction
- Reformers should carefully explore the possible offer strategies available to candidates before trying to change their behaviour
- Reformers should take into account particular meanings attached to offers by recipients before trying to change the behaviour of voters.