Buying votes


When I lived in the US I would occassionally be reminded, during a discussion of an upcoming election, that since I am not a US citizen I didn’t have the right to vote.  To that I would glibly answer “I have essentially the same voting rights as you — as a US permanent resident I can vote up to $2000 per candidate per election.”

The McCain-Feingold Act of 2002, restricts the amount of money that individuals can give to political campaigns.  The limit has since increased with inflation.  How many votes does $2000 buy?  It depends on the election, but in Presidential elections the marginal cost of getting out one extra voter is about $80 I believe (but I can’t reference any research on that).   So, a $2000 donation buys something like 25 extra votes.  I think the $80 per vote is a widely accepted figure.  A funding advantage of $160 million (such as the candidate Obama had in 2008) would buy an extra 2 million votes (of his 65 million).

My wife and I gave money to the Gore campaign in 2000.   We were living in Hanover, New Hampshire (the ‘live free or die’ state).  Because New Hampshire has the first primary all the campaigns go through Hanover and we got to see all the main candidates.  At the end of the primaries it was down to just four: On the Democrat side Bill Bradley and Al Gore and on the Republican side John McCain and George Bush.  It was evident that three of those candidates were men of real statue and the other should have been running a gas station somewhere.  No need to mention which one was not the like the others.  Anyway, we desperately wanted Gore to win (McCain would have been even better), so we gave enough money for lots of extra votes.  I was reminded of this when I read today that Meg Whitman spent $140 million on her campaign to become Governor of California, and lost.  The Telegraph says that she spent about $15 per vote received.

I find it surprising that there is not more money in politics.  Consider the recent federal election in Australia.  The Labour party was promising to enact a resource rent tax and the Liberal party was promising to have no such tax.  The mining industry had a direct interest in the outcome of the election to the tune of tens of billions of dollars.  Why didn’t the mining industry mount a more vigorous campaign against the mining tax during the election period?  They did run a few ads.  But why not a massive campaign?  I am glad they did not.  But what is it that restrains industry bodies from spending more money in the public sphere.  I realise that direct access to politicians is for sale and plenty of money is spent on that.  But I find it puzzling thatv corporations don’t spend more aggressively  on directly influencing public opinion during election campaigns.

5 Responses to "Buying votes"
  1. It often just ends up as an arms race. There’s usually someone on the other side with equally deep pockets, so in the end the only winners are the TV networks.
    Maybe in Australia there’s a gentleman’s agreement not to go down that path.

  2. On the mining tax front, the public campaign from the mining lobby was still one of the more vociforous advertising efforts in recent memory.  Perhaps they did feel constrained by the old adage “he doth protest too much” – i.e. absolutely bombarding the airwaves/eyeballs might have raised greater hostility about the amount of money these interests clearly had.
    As the Aussie political arena has much stronger “party line” adherence than the more individualistic US system, such advertising campaigns might also be much less effective in swaying the actions of politicians relative to backroom lobbying.

  3. Sam,
    Is your $80 per vote figure predicated on optional voting.  Would it be higher or lower under Australian compulsory voting?

  4. Dave
    Yes, the $80 is required to get people in the base of your party out to vote.  That is, it is the marginal cost of getting one more of your supporters to decide to vote.  So, it is not about changing minds, but rather overcoming apathy.  As such, it does not have an analogue in a compulsory voting system.

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