Why Not Just Allow Primary Votes To Be Bought?

[ Posted Tuesday, February 2nd, 2016 – 17:46 UTC ]

Maybe I'm just loopy from staying up late to watch the Iowa returns trickle in, but this morning I had a pretty radical idea, after reading a statistic that several pundits pointed out in their post-caucus articles. Jeb Bush apparently spent $14 million in Iowa to receive a little over 5,200 votes. According to many pundits today, that works out to roughly $2,800 spent per actual vote (it's actually under $2,700 when you run the numbers, but whatever). Which caused my epiphany -- why not just hand that cash over to the voters themselves, and eliminate all the middlemen?

Hey, I warned you it was a pretty radical idea. Vote-buying is, of course, highly illegal under current election law. But I think there's a case to be made for changing these laws.

In the first place, I'm only proposing such a scheme for primary elections (and caucuses). The general election should stay the same, and still forbid outright vote-buying. But the primaries are not part of our constitutional election process at all. Take a look at the U.S. Constitution -- not only does it not say a word about primary elections, it doesn't even mention political parties. Which means anything goes, really. America has had various different ways of selecting partisan nominees for president, and the current primary system is merely the most recent (it's only really been around in anything like its current format since the 1972 election -- not all that long a history, in other words). So changing the system again isn't out of the question.

The concept of "amateur" (i.e., "not paid") has been slowly disappearing for years now. The Olympics which will take place this summer now allow professional athletes to compete. It used to be a pure sporting contest between unpaid performers, but not any more. There is also a movement afoot to allow college athletes (especially football players) to be paid for their efforts. This hasn't actually happened yet, but it's could soon come to pass. So if sports stars can get paid, why not voters?

I hear a constant refrain pretty much every election season from disgruntled citizens. It goes something like this: "It is obscene how much money will be spent on this election. All those politicians should use that money to [fill in your favorite underfunded cause]." This is just plain silliness, since the amount we spend on elections isn't really all that big, in the grand scheme of things. It pales in comparison to how much Americans spend on simple products like mayonnaise or salsa, in fact. But it's silly for another reason as well. Where does this money go, after all? Two main places. The first is toward spending that any organization has to do -- rent for office space, computer and equipment rentals, salaries, travel expenses, supplies, mailings, utilities, and all the rest of the overhead to keep the lights on. The second (and usually bigger) portion is spent on advertising -- television, radio, etc. In other words, the money is recycled back into the American economy, whether to landlords, office supply stores, employee pay, or to local television and radio stations as ad revenue. So how is that a bad thing, really? A large portion of the money donated to political campaigns is excess cash that -- if it wasn't donated -- would probably just be held in savings of some type. Instead of sitting in a bank, that money is circulating through the economy at both the local and national level. Ask a hotel owner in Iowa whether political campaigns help or hurt the local economy, in other words.

My proposal would essentially get rid of most of the advertising budget campaigns now spend. They'd still have to have campaign offices and spend money on travel and whatnot, but rather than shoveling millions into advertising, the campaigns could instead shovel millions into average citizens' pockets -- which could then begin cycling through the local economy.

Candidates would, obviously, get into bidding wars over how much each vote was worth. They would be restrained by their own budget and by the relative importance of each primary and each state. The system would need slight adjustments so the campaigns could verify that each bought voter actually voted for their candidate, but again this isn't really a constitutional problem. Look at the way Democrats caucus in Iowa already -- publicly standing up for your chosen candidate. There's nothing secret about it. So it shouldn't be any problem to eliminate the secret ballot -- at least for the observers for each candidate who are on hand to disperse the cash to the voters (you'd have to prove who you voted for to get the cash, in other words). Even in American general elections the secret vote didn't exist until the late nineteenth century (again, there's nothing in the Constitution about it). And various vote-buying schemes (many of them involving free alcohol) have existed in America previously throughout our history. It wouldn't exactly be unprecedented, to put it mildly.

How much would each vote in Iowa be worth? A free beer? Or $2,800? It's impossible to tell until we try it out. One candidate might try to spend all their money there, in the hopes of building enough momentum to bring in further donations. A more prudent campaign would budget a certain amount for each state on the calendar (or, at least, the earlier states), so they would have cash on hand and wouldn't have to worry about running out of money too early. They already make such budgeting decisions (which state to spend more on advertising, for instance), so this wouldn't be all that big a change from the campaigns' perspective.

Of course, nobody would be forced to take any candidate's money. Purists would refuse to accept money from anyone they vote for, just to stand on principle. Nothing would stop them from doing so. Voters who strongly support their candidate could refuse the money to make it available to buy other voters, too -- kind of a reverse-donation to the candidate. Or some voters might accept less than offered, again to help out their preferred candidate. Campaign workers could even haggle with each voter over how much it would require to secure their vote. For an uncommitted voter, it'd be interesting to see the bargaining between the campaigns. How much would it take to get you to vote for Candidate A over Candidate B?

Primary elections are nothing more than private affairs between members of a political organization. There is nothing inherently different between an Iowa caucus and the local Elks Club electing who will lead their organization. The only legal election in this country happens in November -- all the rest are private parties getting together for the purpose of selecting a nominee for the real election. So there's no real legal reason to be against vote-buying as a part of the process. After all, how many people care how the Elks Club leaders are chosen?

As for other reasons (moral, ethical, whatever) that might exist for not allowing vote-buying, I would say it is just a way to make the political system more equitable. Many decry how much money goes in to how we conduct our politics, using such terms as "trying to buy the election." Donors (obviously) get something out of the process -- the more you donate, the bigger the influence you will reap, to put it crassly. But why should all that money wind up in the pockets of campaign consultants and television stations? Why not spread it around?

Legal vote-buying could be described as a private (non-governmental, in other words) redistribution of the wealth. Those with the ability to donate large sums to the process already get influence as a result. But if the money were to be used to buy voters, then you would have a flow of money from donors to actual voters. It's not "socialism" (because government isn't involved in any way), but it would indeed be a way to redistribute wealth. It would also be an answer to "there's too much money in politics," because if average people were getting money from the system, it would likely change some minds on whether money is a good thing in politics or not.

Am I actually serious in proposing such a radical scheme? Well, not really. I'm not even semi-serious, if truth be told. Call it tongue-in-cheek if you will. It's really nothing more than an homage to the "Modest Proposal" school of writing. As I said at the beginning, this is all the result of being woozy after a late night of election returns. But I couldn't help thinking that if Jeb Bush were actually handing out over a thousand bucks to each and every voter who showed up to caucus for him, he would have had a much better night last night. Who couldn't use an extra $2,800, after all?

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


11 Comments on “Why Not Just Allow Primary Votes To Be Bought?”

  1. [1] 
    altohone wrote:

    Hey CW

    There are all sorts of issues with this non-serious proposal, but there is one that you should consider before all the others.

    The media companies WILL have you shot.

    As a writer, you could be risking your job security just for proposing it jokingly.

    Tread carefully. I kind of like you.


  2. [2] 
    John From Censornati wrote:

    I like this idea if we can take the money and still vote in private.

  3. [3] 
    Michale wrote:

    It would also be an answer to "there's too much money in politics," because if average people were getting money from the system, it would likely change some minds on whether money is a good thing in politics or not.


    It would be exactly like the Democrat Party 180 turnaround on the Citizens United ruling.. :D

    All of the sudden, despite the initial "This will end our Democracy as we know it!!!", all of the sudden it's realized... "Hay, wait a minute. This is an awesome thing! We can USE this!!!"

    But I gotta agree with Biga on this.. Mainly because it drives him hysterical batshit crazy when I do.. :D

    Advertising execs and TV execs will be gunning for yor ass! :D


  4. [4] 
    dsws wrote:

    Take a look at the U.S. Constitution -- not only does it not say a word about primary elections,

    (takes a look at the U.S. Constitution ...)

    Amendment XXIV section 1.

    The right of citizens of the United States to vote in any primary or other election for President ...

  5. [5] 
    dsws wrote:

    In other words, the money is recycled back into the American economy, whether to landlords, office supply stores, employee pay, or to local television and radio stations as ad revenue. So how is that a bad thing, really?

    By preventing those buildings, office supplies, hours of work, and so on from being used to produce other stuff that people could benefit from. That's basically what money means.

  6. [6] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    because the world would end without another season of keeping up with the kardashians?

  7. [7] 
    neilm wrote:

    Instead of a payment to vote, how about a fine if you don't. Australia has mandatory voting, and it would be a good thing is we had the same thing.

    I use postal voting - it literally takes minutes to think "Which way would Michale vote?" then do the opposite, slap a stamp on, sign and mail.

    Just kidding Michale ;)

  8. [8] 
    Michale wrote:

    I use postal voting - it literally takes minutes to think "Which way would Michale vote?" then do the opposite, slap a stamp on, sign and mail.

    Just kidding Michale ;)



  9. [9] 
    Michale wrote:

    But if I voted in the Dem Primary, then I would vote for Bernie..

    So, that means you would vote for Hillary.. :D


  10. [10] 
    Michale wrote:
  11. [11] 
    TheStig wrote:

    CW- I'll add a few fig leaves to your modest proposal.

    First, I note that the betting exchanges have already developed most of the software to implement your concept.

    As for the legal mechanics, I don't see any problems whatever. The privatized political parties simply decide that all ballots, or a proportion of the ballots (to allow for a firm Establishment hand on The Tiller of Statesmanship) are replaced by on-line contracts, one contract per voter. In order to use the on line exchange, each voter must visit party headquarters to register, with a photo ID and receive a unique PIN number. That should take care of most voter fraud, although there is some potential for hacking (using PIN worms). You can't stop progress on account of some background fraud...and The Public already accepts/ignores a much larger amount of Candidate Fraud without making a meaningful fuss at the ballot box.

    I do see 2 potential problems, neither which is necessarily fatal.

    Problem the First. The Advertising Lobby is going to hate it, since they lose out on lucrative primary adverts. On the other hand, The Candidates may need to be convinced that contracts for the Primaries + Adverts for the Election are actually cheaper than All ads all the time. (Actually I'm not entirely convinced that would be so).

    Problem the second: The Public might suspect the costs will ultimately be passed on to them by higher prices for goods and services. Ultimately, the consumer pays for advertisements, possibly offset by increased information (hmmm...) or greased economics as dollars travel further and faster resulting in a multiplication effect (double hmmmm....). Same model applies to bribes.

    I don't know the answers to those problems, but that's the beauty of having 50 state laboratories, and 50 states worth of citizen lab rats and Professional Economists in whatever they wear when they collect or make up data.

    In closing, this primary vote buying concept would have made a great deadpan Bob and Ray routine *. I mention this because Bob Elliot died yesterday, or thereabouts, aged 92. So long Bob, say hey to Ray, and write if you get work in the aferlife.

    PS, this column alone was worth my hefty yearly contribution :)

    Interviewer: "How can employees live on just 13 cents per day?"

    Guest: "We try not to pry into the private lives of our employees"

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