To vote, or not to vote. Or sell my vote on eBay.

The New York Times’ Freakonomics blog recently asked the question “Is it smarter to sell your vote or to cast it?”. It quoted an article in NYU’s student newspaper which found that two-thirds of the NYU students polled would trade their vote in next year’s presidential election for a year’s free tuition, 20% would trade their vote for an Ipod Touch (or about $299) while 50% would trade their vote permanently for $1 million.

The economists at Freakonomics have always argued that voting does not make good economic sense. They argue that while voting is costly to the individual voter in terms of time, effort and lost productivity, there are no corresponding benefits. A single vote rarely ever decides an election, especially not the major, really important ones. In the event that the difference between the votes is marginal, other parties, like the courts, will come into play.

Of course, you say, if everyone thought this way, then no one would vote, and then we might as well have a dictatorship. The price of being a democracy is that we have to vote to be able to choose our own representatives.

That sounds like a great argument. But think about elections in India. Think of the daily wage worker, who loses a day’s pay when he (or she) goes to vote. If the employer is harsh, our worker may even be fired for missing a day, of course with a different stated reason. Yet the poor not only turn out to vote in large numbers, they also attend rallies and demonstrations, and actively involve themselves in state and national politics.

How do they do this? Of course, because they are paid by the parties. By paying more than their daily wage, political parties make it an easy economic decision for the poor. I am now going to take a controversial stand and say, not only is it right that the poor should be paid to attend rallies, it is also in the common good, for it enables the poor to have an interest in politics, take time to understand issues, and take an active role in our democracy. 

I also love the way the poor go about accepting freebies. The poor are equal-opportunity accepters of freebies. They will attend all rallies and accept all freebies. This does not mean they will vote blindly. They do use their votes to better their plight, and by voting as a block, they do increase their power. I shall give you just one example – Jagmohan, 2004. The detailed story is here, beautifully described by the Financial Times. No doubt, there are many more such examples that each of us can cite.

We, the salaried and the professionals, are not tempted by freebies. Nor do we attend rallies. We become cynical. Forced to choose between two corrupt politicians, we end up voting for neither.

The poor do it better. They are probably as cynical as we are, but they make the most of the situation. Their individual votes may be meaningless, and the outcome of the election may not make any difference to their lives.

But all the freebies offered in the election itself will. So they accept that color television, the saris and the few hundred rupees. They trade their vote for a price, because that is the best economic choice. The poor, after all, are great economists. They have to be.

As for me, I will accept that $1 million, thank you. It will help nicely with the mortgage. I can even start a nonprofit, and make far more of a difference than my one vote ever will.

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8 thoughts on “To vote, or not to vote. Or sell my vote on eBay.

  1. Couldn’t disagree more with you on this issue. 🙂
    I think you give less credit to poor people – who really knows for what candidate they voted for once they were in the booth? They probably got the TV and voted for someone other than the one they were told to vote for. Even in India, Indira Gandhi was voted out after emergency – people don’t take kindly to, nor forget easily, in spite of freebies, the issue of forced sterilization. BJP was voted out once people found out they’re no better than the previous parties.

    Yes, democracy is not perfect, but it’s the best system we have. By voting, I reserve my right to criticize my elected officials and have a say in the day-to-day affairs. Why would I want to lose that right for a million dollars? Already percentage of US voters at Presidential elections is so low. Methinks the efforts should be in the direction of getting more people involved rather than the opposite. And if I don’t vote, I stand to lose even more rights as elected officials will have even more power. So, no thanks, to the million dollars. 🙂

  2. Amit, I do talk about how the poor also use their vote to better themselves. If you read the FT article I have linked to, on how they voted out Jagmohan, that’s a classic example!

    Thanks for visiting my blog, and commenting! I really appreciate it when someone takes the time to share their thoughts on my posts.

  3. i am not going to vote unless i can be giving a donation for my vote .with me not wanting to vote for either party and me and my family are lower class due to illness and poor and if my vote is important i would help with my vote if i could get help for my vote .we need diapers ,kids clothes ,women and men clothes ,help with all my bills ,something we are not greedy i have 2 herniated disc in my neck which needs surgery 3 herniated disc in my back(lumbar area) which needs a surgery pin and plate with screws.i have a severe case of tmj in the jaw and need surgery fo that. i have been married for a little over 5 years a lil girl who is 5 and a boy 3 ..i am 29 and i could sell my vote since i dont care to vote now i should be allowed it is mine thanks

  4. This attempt to sell his vote shows how little regard young people have for democracy and the right to vote. Perhaps if they lived in a country where citizens don’t have the right to vote, they might have a clue … Maybe. These bloggers are quick with their trite little quips, while having no understanding of the blood, sweat and tears it took to achieve and maintain free and incorrupt elections. What a bunch of stupid, naive children. I say lock them up and make an example of them! P.S. I’ve noticed that some bloggers justify what this kid did, due to the fact that some politicians and lobbyists sell their votes. Well, that’s just great! They point out the worst, most broken aspects of our system, with great disdain … then they defend others who attempt to do the same thing!

  5. This attempt to sell his vote shows how little regard young people have for democracy and the right to vote. Perhaps if they lived in a country where citizens don?t have the right to vote, they might have a clue ? Maybe. These bloggers are quick with their trite little quips, while having no understanding of the blood, sweat and tears it took to achieve and maintain free and incorrupt elections. What a bunch of stupid, naive children. I say lock them up and make an example of them! P.S. I?ve noticed that some bloggers justify what this kid did, due to the fact that some politicians and lobbyists sell their votes. Well, that?s just great! They point out the worst, most broken aspects of our system, with great disdain ? then they defend others who attempt to do the same thing!

  6. Hey there HC, I believe what youre talking about would be facism. “If you dont do things my way ill make an example of you and put you in jail”. That might not make for the democratic utopia you hoped. Also, while I sit here in Iraq watching the election near, I know that my vote will make no difference in the current system. I am from a conservitive state. And while my vote will be one tick towards Obama’s win, that wont change the fact that McCain is going to be getting those votes that matter: the Electoral ones. While my vote is sent off, and I wouldnt have it any other way, I can see a situation where a person ho knows that their vote is next to worthless might see it as a viable option to get some worth out of it. I’m not saying that its right that it happens, I’m saying that its wrong where a rational person can look at selling their vote as the smartest choice.

    I would think that it is clear by now that I believe in a popular vote, something that might give at least a bit more worth to the individual vote. But I’m just a dumb kid sitting in the deaert, what do I know

  7. Pingback: US Elections, ads and memories | The Imagined Universe

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