Democracy for Sale: Time for a Market In Votes

IF THERE is a religion which goes almost without question in polite society it is that of democratic government. We are constantly told that voting is the cornerstone of our civilization, many going as far as to say it is our ‘duty’ to vote. Since we effectively have no choice over whether we would like to live in a society in which the democratic majority rules or whether say we can live in a rights respecting republic we should have the choice to do with our so called democratic right as we wish.

We are told we can do this either by voting for a party of our choice, starting a political party or refusing to vote or spoil our ballot paper. However, I suggest that if you propose to most people that every individual should be able to sell their vote rather than cast it or not, most people would greet you with horror similar to that of explaining to a child that Santa Claus does not exist.

What I believe is more sacred even than voting is individual autonomy. I agree with the argument of philosopher James Stacey Taylor that we should legalize a market in votes. So what is entailed in the action of selling a vote?

If I sell my vote voluntarily to party A for £10 we have made a trade. Trade is mutually beneficial, I valued the £10 more than my vote and party A valued my vote more than £10, we have traded and created wealth. So far so good: we have more choices and those who wish to buy and sell votes are engaged in mutually beneficial exchanges which would otherwise not have happened had we not had a market in votes.

However if it is individual autonomy that we should be most concerned about, aren’t there a number of objections to this particular market? One is made by Susan Stokes. Stokes’ objection is that when we vote we examine the different parties and come to the conclusion that we will vote for the one which will most represent our views, values and interests and in voting for this party our autonomy is enhanced. If we allow a market in votes this process will be destroyed and people will sell their votes to the highest bidder. Is this a realistic concern with vote markets? Consider this scenario:

In 2015 you prefer the Conservatives to Labour; both the Conservative and Labour parties are offering £10 for your vote. Which one will you sell your vote to? The likely scenario is that most voters will either continue to vote freely for the party which most represents their values and interests or they will sell their vote to the party which they would have voted for anyway.

Another objection to markets in votes maybe that the most vile and hateful political parties will now be able to buy huge quantities of votes they otherwise would not be receiving. Again this is highly unlikely. Consider the following scenario:

You are a Conservative or Labour voter; both these parties are offering £10 for your vote. However the BNP are offering £12 for your vote. How likely is it that most Conservative or Labour voters are going to change their voting behaviour from either giving their vote freely or selling their vote to the party of their choice to voting for the BNP? I submit that people will make evaluations based on more than the price of the vote and that most voters will in fact remain the same.

A further major objection to markets in votes is the position of the poor. It may be argued that the poor because of their plight will be the most likely to sell their votes. Indeed the poor may be so desperate that they will sell their votes to a party which will in fact make them worse off and restrict their overall autonomy, if that party is the highest bidder. Individual A may say to himself that his vote does not count in the grand scheme of things so he may as well sell it to the highest bidder. Then let us take Individual B equally as poor who does not want to sell his vote but knows that there are many people like A so he will sell his vote as he believes that his chosen party will lose anyway but he will not have made the same monetary gains as A. It seems that at least in some way the autonomy of B has been restricted by a market in votes. This seems like a plausible argument.

Something that must be pointed out however are that many poor people already do not vote for political parties that will safeguard their position in regard to benefits they may receive from the state. Many poor voters today vote for the Conservative party despite the fact that the Conservative party will not promise as much in terms of state aid as the Labour party. Again we see that people vote not only in their pure monetary self-interest but take other factors into account.

More importantly the claim that the votes of the poor will be bought en masse by a party which will make them worse off also rests on the premise that one party will be able to significantly outbid the other. This is certainly not the case in the UK. We are then unlikely to see the defensive selling of votes from person B were we to allow vote markets.

If the UK legalises a market in votes the result will not be a BNP majority in 2015 nor will it deprive the poor of political choice. A market in votes will simply provide us with more choices especially to those who think the who exercise is largely pointless in terms of creating a free society with maximum individual autonomy.

As the old saying goes ‘It doesn’t matter who you vote for the government always gets in’.


  1. Isn’t this more or less how democracy works already? You may not be directly ‘selling your vote’, but effectively that’s what most people do – give their vote to the party that promises to help them the most financially. This proposal would only make explicit what’s already implied.

    It does run into the obvious problem of ‘what if the party can’t afford to pay everyone who votes for it?’, though. Would the unhappy voters then be able to sue the party, or transfer their votes to someone else?

  2. From the point of view of each individual, it’s rational to sell your vote, even for very low cost, because one vote almost never makes a difference.

    From the point of view of crony capitalists, it’s rational to buy votes for the party making them promises of lots of subsidies etc, as long as the cost of buying votes is less that the cost of what they will gain from the political party if it gets into power.

    So surely a market in votes would just worsen the problems which public choice theory talks about?

    Interesting idea though, I haven’t really thought about this before.


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