Vote buying—the practice of providing or promising cash, gifts, jobs, or other things of value to voters to induce them to support a candidate in an election—is illegal in 163 countries, yet it is a widespread and seemingly intractable problem in many parts of the developing world. In Ghana, for example, incumbents distribute outboard motors to fishermen and food to the rural electorate. In the Philippines, politicians distribute cash and plum short-term jobs. In 2015, Nigerian incumbents delivered bags of rice with images of the president ahead of the election. And Werner Herzog’s 2010 documentary film Happy People shows a politician cheerfully delivering dried goods along with musical entertainment to an utterly isolated village of trappers in Siberia (49 minutes into the film). Thus, recent instances of vote buying are more varied than the simple cash for vote exchange; they include awarding patronage jobs and purposefully targeting social spending as a reward for political support.
Vote buying not only distorts the outcomes of elections, but it also hurts the (usually poor) communities where this practice is rampant. It might be tempting to say that at least those who sell their votes receive something from their government, but in fact, once these citizens are bought off, their broader interests are left out of the government’s decision-making process, as the incentive to provide public goods to that group disappears. A study in the Philippines, for example, found that vote buying correlates with lower public investments in health and higher rates of malnourishment in children.
While some commentators occasionally (and condescendingly) suggest that vote buying is a product of non-Western political norms and expectations, this could not be further from the truth. Although wealthy democracies like the United States today experience very little crude vote buying, vote buying in the U.S. was once just as severe as anything we see today in the developing world. In fact, during George Washington’s first campaign for public office in 1758, he spent his entire campaign budget on alcohol in an effort to woo voters to the polls. By the 19th century, cash and food occasionally supplemented the booze, particularly in times of depression. Even as late as 1948, a future president won his senate campaign through vote buying and outright fraud.
Yet while U.S. politics today is certainly not corruption-free (see here, here, and here), it has managed to (mostly) solve the particular problem of vote buying. Does the relative success of certain U.S. efforts hold any lessons for younger democracies? One must always be cautious in drawing lessons from the historical experience of countries like the U.S. for modern postcolonial states, both because the contexts are quite different and because suggesting that other countries can learn from the U.S. experience can sometimes come off as patronizing. Nevertheless, certain aspects of the United States’ historical strategy to combat vote buying might be relevant to those countries struggling with the problem today. Let me highlight a few of them:
- A truly secret ballot: A formally secret ballot (the “Australian” ballot) was a key reform in the United States and is now ubiquitous across the world. (Different U.S. states adopted the secret ballot at different times over the course of the 19th century. In 1891, Kentucky became the last state to eliminate the oral ballot.) Yet while a secret ballot is a necessary first step to combat vote buying, a secret ballot alone is not sufficient so long as other, informal methods of voter monitoring are available. For example, the secret ballot is of little use in small communities where a local official can look the voter in the eye before and after they cast their “secret” ballot. The secret ballot must therefore be augmented by accompanying reforms that make it difficult to informally monitor voters. In the U.S., vote buying continued for several decades after the introduction of the secret ballot, until the political machines were dismantled and it became impractical for party officials to monitor how the radically enlarged electorate voted. Supplemental reforms to the secret ballot which might cut down on informal voter monitoring include banning electioneering near polling places (as many U.S. states do), assigning non-local people at random to staff election booths, and drawing larger voting districts.
- Systematizing social spending: In the 19th and 20th centuries, political machines in U.S. cities provided the poor electorate with targeted support (cash, jobs, etc.) in exchange for their votes. These machines, with their vast networks of local agents, used specific kickbacks to reward the faithful and to penalize the unfaithful. As Professor Susan Stokes documents, progressive era reforms in the United States made social spending more formalized, rule-bound, and programmatic; as a result, political parties could no longer penalize or reward voters according to their choice on Election Day. And while social programs change with the party in power, they change in systematic ways. The general principle seems to be: insulating decision-making about individual beneficiaries of social spending from partisan politics helps to combat vote buying. While this strategy is of little help in combating more direct forms of vote buying (such as direct transfers of cash or gifts from politicians to voters), limiting the ability of political machines to use the public purse to buy votes is an important step in the right direction.
- Civil Service Reforms: The role of civil service reforms in combating vote buying is quite similar to that of social spending reforms. Jobs are probably the most valuable handouts that a winning party can give to its supporters. The power to make countless political appointments feeds a clientelist system and kept U.S. political machines running for generations. Blowback came in the late 19th century, when a disgruntled potential appointee assassinated President James Garfield. His successor, President Chester Arthur, signed into law several measures to control the patronage appointee system. For example, the 1893 Pendleton Act required entrance exams for new bureaucrats. Raising the bar for entrance to the civil service and whittling down the number of political government appointees are good first steps. But separating the civil service from successive monopolization by political parties is a long process and in the U.S. it took decades. Almost a half-century later, the Hatch Act was enacted as a direct response to politicians coercing voters with contracts and jobs in the Works Progress Administration (the largest New Deal agency). The Hatch Act explicitly forbids bribing voters, but it takes the further step of severely limiting the campaign activities federal employees may engage in. While formalizing civil service and social spending are essential reforms for combating vote buying, if the U.S. is any indication, these efforts take time.
The three recommended areas of focus are neither exhaustive nor sufficient mechanisms for combating vote buying, but they offer good general principles for young democracies today. As research from the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (JPAL) has demonstrated, the modern context also allows for powerful new tools, such as well-timed, targeted radio advertisements and television campaigns. It might just be that the key to moving forward in the fight against vote buying is to draw upon the principles derived from historical experience of older democracies, and apply those principles with the aid of modern methods of outreach.