Would You Sell Your Vote?

Published date01 September 2021
Date01 September 2021
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
2021, Vol. 49(5) 452 –463
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X211013565
Many observers harbor concerns that democracy in the
United States is under siege. Prominent scholars draw dis-
turbing comparisons between recent developments in the
U.S.—such as heightened political polarization, the success
of extremist candidates, and weakened civil liberties—and
warning signs that preceded democratic collapse in Hungary,
Turkey, Venezuela, and beyond (Kaufman & Haggard, 2019;
Levitsky & Ziblatt, 2018). Other recent studies demonstrate
that a considerable share of US voters would support vio-
lence to achieve political ends (Bartels, 2020), sacrifice dem-
ocratic principles to support candidates aligned with their
ideological and policy preferences (Carey et al., 2020;
Graham & Svolik, 2020), or favor authoritarian political sys-
tems (Foa & Mounk, 2016). Meanwhile, surveys of political
scientists reveal a pervasive belief that key components of
democratic quality—electoral and civil rights, the account-
ability of government officials, and civil discourse across
ideological divides—are declining in America (Carey et al.,
Given such signals that US democracy is under duress,
the present article investigates an understudied question: To
what extent are contemporary Americans willing to sell their
votes? In the historic U.S., observers estimated that many
voters would do so; for example, in 1890 the New York Times
found “a general concurrence in the estimate that at least
20 per cent of the citizens of [a Maine] town would as soon
sell their votes as their wood, or their potatoes, or their fish”
during a congressional election.1 But this line of inquiry is
now unfamiliar, in large part because the heyday of machine
politics in America passed many decades ago and only ves-
tiges of vote buying continue.2 Whereas important experi-
mental work suggests that Americans who receive significant,
nonpartisan financial incentives are more likely to turn out
(Panagopoulos, 2013), the extant literature sheds little light
on whether cash could influence US citizens’ vote choices as
well as electoral participation.
Notwithstanding the rarity of clientelism in the contem-
porary U.S., evidence suggests that it is worthwhile to
investigate Americans’ willingness to sell their votes.
During the 2000 presidential elections, California, Illinois,
Massachusetts, and Nebraska undertook legal actions to
shut down voteauction.com, a website that enabled citizens
to offer their votes for sale with the following slogan:
“Cutting out the middleman and bringing the big money of
presidential politics directly to you.”3 The notion of selling
one’s vote apparently resonated with many Americans, as
more than 15,000 voters quickly registered. In the words of
one participant: “Selling my vote I think is a very obvious
political statement. . . . It’s saying that if the buying and
selling of votes is going on even now between closed doors,
through the lobbyists, let’s make it a little more obvious.”4
1013565APRXXX10.1177/1532673X211013565American Politics ResearchGans-Morse and Nichter
1Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, USA
2University of California San Diego, La Jolla, USA
Corresponding Author:
Simeon Nichter, Department of Political Science, University of California
San Diego, 9500 Gilman Drive, #0521, La Jolla, CA 92093-0021, USA.
Email: nichter@ucsd.edu
Would You Sell Your Vote?
Jordan Gans-Morse1 and Simeon Nichter2
Prominent scholars in recent years have expressed alarm about political polarization, weakened civil liberties, and growing
support for authoritarianism in the United States. But discussions of democratic backsliding pay short shrift to the value
citizens place on one of the most fundamental democratic institutions: the act of voting. Drawing on nationally representative
survey data, we show that despite traditional portrayals of the U.S. as the embodiment of a democratic “civic culture,” a
substantial share of Americans express readiness to sell their votes for cash: 12% of respondents would do so for just $25,
as would nearly 20% for $100. Citizens who place low importance on living in a democracy are significantly more willing to
sell their votes. We argue that heightened attention to US voters’ attitudes toward clientelism would provide an additional
barometer of democratic skepticism, help to integrate the study of American and comparative politics, and stimulate novel
research agendas about the historic decline of vote buying in the United States.
elections, democracy, vote buying, clientelism, machine politics

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