Countable Q&A: Why Can’t I Just Sell My Vote?
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by Countable | 11.3.16
With the election just days away and candidates fighting for votes, a Countable user wrote us, wondering: If my vote might be so useful to another person or campaign, why can’t I just sell it?
A Countable user writes: "Why can't I sell my vote? I know it sounds like a silly question, but considering the numerous dubious aspects of American elections (gerrymandering) and campaigns (Citizens United) why is the voter the only one that is confined to the ideals of democracy?"
Countable: The short answer is that unlike campaign spending by corporations and unions and gerrymandering (with some limitations), selling your vote or buying someone else’s is illegal under federal law. A lot of states have their own laws prohibiting vote buying or selling as well. It’s a form of voter fraud. Reasonable people can disagree about whether individuals and companies spending millions of dollars to encourage voters to support a particular cause or candidate is "buying" an election. Whatever your thoughts on the Citizens United ruling, voters still get to cast their own ballots and make their own choices. But literally paying someone to vote for a particular candidate or issue continues to be a bridge too far in American politics.
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Buying or selling a vote in a federal election (for president, Congress, etc.) violates part of U.S. Code 52, which also outlaws things like voting twice.
"Whoever knowingly or willfully gives false information as to his name, address or period of residence in the voting district for the purpose of establishing his eligibility to register or vote, or conspires with another individual for the purpose of encouraging his false registration to vote or illegal voting, or pays or offers to pay or accepts payment either for registration to vote or for voting shall be fined not more than $10,000 or imprisoned not more than five years, or both."
It is, however, legal to trade your vote. As we discussed earlier this week, voters in swing states can legally ask someone in a safe blue or red state to vote third party for them in exchange for supporting that person's major party candidate preference in a state where it really matters. Some third party supporters are organizing vote trades this year, to provide a vote for their preferred candidate, while preventing either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump from benefitting.
But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen. Back in 2000, a New York state graduate student launched vote-auction.com, which allowed users to sell their vote to the highest bidder. It was shut down after at least three elections boards in New York, California and Chicago threatened to sue, citing local as well as federal laws. Founder James Baumgartner "wanted to divert some of the millions of dollars being spent on advertising and consultants to voters," Slate wrote at the time.
Vote-auction.com was a protest of sorts, but there have also been many historical and even some recent examples of politicians buying votes in order to sway elections in their favor.
The Washington Post had a great story back in 2012 about vote-buying and the candidates who went to jail for it. As the story illustrates, there are a stunning number of Americans, apparently, who were willing to give up their vote for just a small bottle of vodka or whiskey. But perhaps the Post’s best story of vote-buying comes from Clay County, Kentucky, where candidates were buying votes for $100 each. "[T]hat was probably too much," the Post’s David Farenthold writes. “It attracted one woman who already had sold her vote. The man who bought it first was outraged, and he beat up the man who bought it second.”
Just this year, two officials were convicted of buying votes for $50 each in Magoffin County, Kentucky, during the 2010 and 2014 election cycles.
Still, voting-buying isn’t very common in the United States, but not just because it’s illegal. There’s a great paper from Princeton University that looks at the rise and fall of vote-buying in the U.S. and in Great Britain, which notes that the practice was common in both nations long after it was outlawed. So why did it end? Because it’s a lot cheaper — especially now — to get your message out through an ad on television, in a newspaper or online, than it is to hand out enough money to individual voters to get them to support you.
So, while you may want to sell your vote (which is, again, illegal), you may have trouble finding someone to buy it.
— Sarah Mimms
Image via Flickr
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