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Vote Selling Versus Vote Swapping

Joseph Bowen (@joe_bowen_1)

Lets begin with a pair of cases:

Pub Swap. Suppose Ann endorses Political Party A and Ben endorses Political Party B. Both would place Party C as their last choice. Ann lives in constituency 1 and Ben lives in constituency 2. In constituency 1 there is a close race between Party B and Party C. In constituency 2 there is a close race between Party A and Party C. Sitting in the pub the night before the election, Ann and Ben decide to vote for each others respective parties in their own constituency.

Votes for Beer. Suppose Carl endorses Political Party A and Dana endorses Political Party B. Carl lives in constituency 3 and Dana lives in constituency 4. In constituency 3, Party A is certain to win. In constituency 4, there is a close race between Party A and Party C—Party B cannot win. Sitting in the pub the night before the election, Carl offers to buy Dana five pints in exchange for her voting for Party A.

Is there a difference between Pub Swap and Votes for Beer? Generally, we take vote selling to be wrong—but what about vote swapping? Before the general election back in May, there cropped up a vote swap between Labour and Green supporters. The explicit idea was to ‘swap votes to keep out the Tories’ ( Because of our first-past-the-post system voters can often be torn between (i) voting for a candidate or party they want, but that has little chance of winning, and  (ii) tactically voting for a different candidate or party that they would prefer, were their first choice not to win. However, if one chooses to vote tactically, this will cause an unrepresentative vote share. It also does not matter in a first-past-the-post system whether a candidate wins by one or ten-thousand votes (hence the name)—and so, if one is voting in a constituency with a “safe seat” (that is, in a constituency where a particular candidate (usually of a particular party) is almost certain to win) then who one votes for is highly unlikely to change proceedings.

The idea of the vote swap, then, is this:

If you’re a Green in a Labour target seat you can pledge to vote Labour to keep a Tory out. In return a Labour supporter in a seat that Labour is unlikely to win or lose pledges to vote Green, ‘lending’ their vote to a seat where it will make a difference. The national vote share does not change, but the number of Tory MPs goes down (voteswap).

That looks pretty similar to Pub Swap.

Being on the left of the political spectrum, I thought this was a great idea—but then I got to thinking, how would I feel if there was a vote swap between UKIP and the Conservatives in order to keep Labour (or the Greens) out of government? I also got to thinking, is there really any difference between vote selling and vote swapping?

I will tentatively put forward two differences. Following Michael Sandel, we might say that the first argument is made on the grounds that vote selling is coercive; the second argument is made on the grounds that vote selling corrupts the moral or civic value of voting. Both of these arguments do not apply to vote swapping.

An argument for vote selling is that it benefits both parties (see Freiman). Under normal conditions, Dana will only sell her vote for n pounds just incase she values n pounds more than she values her vote. Carl will only buy Dana’s vote for n pounds just incase he values her vote more than n pounds. Thus, both Carl and Dana get what they prefer when comparing Dana selling, or not selling her vote. An obvious objection to this is that it may result in wealth-based political inequalities (i.e., the rich will have more votes because they can afford more votes). Another objection is that one’s ability to pay will not always track the intensity with which one wants to buy or sell their vote. Dana may value n pounds (or five pints in Pub Swap) more than her vote because of economic necessity, and not because she is somewhat indifferent between parties A and B. (While this will still benefit Dana in some sense, it seems to benefit her for the wrong reasons.) Finally, in an non-ideal world where inequalities in wealth result from injustices, there is something repugnant about injustices  then exacerbating further injustices. Unlike vote selling, vote swapping won’t result in wealth-based political inequalities or allow exploitation of different bargaining powers.

A more principled objection to vote selling is that it simply gets voting wrong. This objection says that voting instantiates a republican ideal of citizenship—roughly, to be free to participate in shaping the forces that govern the collective (Sandel, 108). Vote selling corrupts this value. Whilst I am usually sceptical of these essentialist arguments, there does seem to be something intuitively appealing about the corruptive argument when applied to vote selling. One just misunderstands the purpose of voting when offering to buy or sell votes. Again, this objection doesn’t hold against vote swapping. When Ann and Ben swap votes in Pub Swap they seem to actualise Sandel’s idea of republican citizenship—they participate in shaping the forces that govern their collective.

To summarise, I have suggested two ways in which vote selling is less objectionable than vote swapping. The second argument says that vote selling corrupts the value of voting. The first argument is a little more tangible: vote swapping doesn’t cause harm in the same way that vote selling does vis-à-vis causing wealth-based political inequalities or exploiting people’s vulnerable positions.

Against Vote Selling

Michael Sandel, ‘What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets’, The Tanner Lectures in Human Values (1998).

Debra Satz, Why Some Things Should Not Be For Sale: The Moral Limits of Markets (Oxford University Press, 2010).

For (the permissibility of ) Vote Selling

Jason Brennan, The Ethics of Voting (Princeton University Press, 2011).

Christopher Freiman, ‘Vote Markets’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy 92/4 (2014).

(Thanks to Joey Montgomery for discussing this with me over dinner at BSET–and then Brian McElwee after dinner!)

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3 Comment on this post

  1. The two initial examples are not comparable, because the vote swap is reciprocal, and the vote buying is not. If Joseph Bowen is simply discussing whether it is wrong to pay a voter to vote for a specific party, then why bother with the vote swap story anyway?

    The two examples could be made more comparable, if both voters bought each other beer, in order to persuade each other, to change each others vote. But then, that would not be comparable with real-world electoral bribery, which is all one-way. The modified example would be fairly useless for a discussion of the ethics of vote-buying and vote-selling. It would also be fairly pointless in real life, since they could just agree a swap, and save the money for the beer. The vote swap example seems to be superfluous, a red herring, etc. We could just talk about electoral bribery: is it wrong, or is it right. Is a market for votes right or wrong.?

    That said, the vote swap pledge mentioned here could be illegal in some countries. Most countries have electoral laws that criminalise inducement to vote for a particular candidate. The Belgian Federal electoral law, for instance, makes it an offence to offer money, material goods, or any advantage, to persuade a voter to either vote for a specific candidate, or to abstain from voting, or even to make such an offer conditional on a certain outcome of the election.

    Art. 181. (Met gevangenisstraf van acht dagen tot een maand en met geldboete van vijftig frank tot vijfhonderd frank of met een van die straffen alleen wordt gestraft hij die, rechtstreeks of onrechtstreeks, zelfs bij wijze van weddenschap, hetzij geld, waarden of enig voordeel, hetzij steun geeft, aanbiedt of belooft onder voorwaarde van stemverlening, stemonthouding of verlening van volmacht als bedoeld in (artikel 147bis), dan wel op voorwaarde dat de verkiezing een bepaalde uitslag oplevert.)

    The legality of vote swaps depends on the exact phrasing used to describe an ‘inducement to vote’. Obviously the vote pledge available at vote is an inducement by one voter to another voter. It is an inducement to vote in a certain way. If we take the ‘republican ideal of citizenship’ seriously (which I don’t), then that seems just as corruptive as offering cash. Nor are vote swaps exempt from inequalities, as Joseph Bowen seems to think. In single-member constituency systems, the marginality of the constituency where you live determines the value of your vote. Votes could therefore be swapped on a 2-for-1 basis, or even for instance 1.37-for-1, creating a quasi-market in which some voters have more ‘wealth’ than others.

    So it is not as simple as ‘vote-swap good, vote-sell bad’. And if we start looking at real-world democracies, than it gets much more complicated. What if Alexandra in Britain wants to swap her vote in a UK general election, with Allesandra in Italy, who is voting in the city council election? What about immigrants who can’t vote? What about the constituency boundaries, which single-party governments typically try to manipulate in their favour? All these complicating factors derive from structural flaws in the liberal-democratic ‘republican ideal’, and it would be wrong to dismiss them, in any discussion of the ethics of vote markets.

  2. I’ve never really understood the very strong intuition some people have against vote selling, partly because of all the blurriness about what might constitute “selling”. e.g. is responding to political advertising “selling”? It could certainly be seen that way – “vote for me and I’ll increase your pay!” (in that case the payment is simply deferred until after the election, and subject to electoral and other delivery risks. But it’s still a payment.) What about contributing time or money to political campaigns? That’s a kind of buying votes – going out into the community and trying to tell voters that your candidate is the best. That’s not a reasoned, dispassionate example of the discharging of a civic duty, it’s a highly partisan attempt to make your candidate look good and their candidate look bad. Offering a lump sum payment might be more crude, but it’s less disingenuous. (How about union-led bloc voting? (That strikes me as worse because its coercive – the price is zero but the votes are still appropriated.))

    If the objection is based on the vote-seller getting too low a price, then presumably there is some price at which this objection is negated. If votes sell for a million quid each, then I’d have thought that there is potential for vote-selling to be a progressive policy. If they go for a pound, not so much. If the objection is that it leads to bad outcomes, then presumably there is some set of electoral choices over which vote-selling is preferable to not vote selling: if Adolf Hitler is cruising towards victory and only a massive, targeted vote-buying campaign** in marginal seats will stop him, then shouldn’t (some) consequentialists at least get on board with this vote market? I’m sure there are flavours of rule utilitarianism that would oppose vote-selling in general because it’s usually a bad idea, but it might be permissible in specific circumstances. I think my point is that however strong your intuition against it, arguments for vote markets might be worth listening to.

    *on behalf of a wise and enlightened party who will bring about a massively better set of outcomes/future trajectories.

    On tactical voting – I think it’s a perfectly reasonable idea. You can vote to optimise some function, or minimise some other function. The choice is yours. Imagine you have two uninspiring candidates, Yvette and Andy, and one odious one, Jeremy. Imagine you have a weak preference for Andy, but think that Yvette is much more likely to be elected. If your first priority is mitigating risk, then it’s quite reasonable to think that the main aim of the vote is to defeat Jeremy rather than to express your personal preference. (In fact, people often invoke the idea of putting the common good over one’s personal preference as a further form of civic duty – if this is so then tactical voting, far from being objectionable, may in fact be required.) If you can get something in return from tactical voting, I don’t see the problem – then you’re simply reflecting more of your preference through a negotiated arrangement elsewhere in the political market.

  3. selling of legal abortion pills

    If the objection is based on the vote-seller getting too low a price, then presumably there is some price at which this objection is negated.

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