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A new policy prescription for corruption-free voting: require every eligible American to cast a vote, according to UC Berkeley professor


As the 2008 presidential election reports record voter turnout, a new study provides compelling evidence that mandatory voting may be the best way to reduce electoral corruption.  The research focused on “vote buying,” the act of bribing voters.  According to John Morgan, professor at the Haas School of Business, University of California, Berkeley, policy reforms combining the present secret ballot with the required vote of every eligible American would remove the possibility of vote buying.

The working paper, “Negative Vote Buying and the Secret Ballot,” is authored by Morgan and Felix Vardy, senior economist, World Bank. Morgan says the results of the 2000 presidential election (George Bush vs. Al Gore), which many challenged, prompted his research on election outcomes.

While many believe that the secret ballot offers an effective vote buying deterrent, earlier studies suggested that its introduction in the late 1800’s may have actually increased the practice of buying votes. The problem is that negative vote buying – paying voters to abstain – may be a viable way to swing an election.  

The researchers asked, “If you were interested in vote buying, how would you best do it? How do you know you got what you paid for?” 

To answer these questions, Morgan and Vardy studied the effects of the secret ballot on both positive and negative vote buying in two party elections. When individual votes are not secret, positive vote buying provides a powerful tool. Flipping an opposing voter to your side provides a two vote advantage—subtracting one vote from the opposition while adding a vote to your tally. Paying an opposing voter to stay home only shifts the vote total by one. Said Morgan, “The economics are clear in this case: Negative vote buying never pays.”

Under the closed ballot, flipping an opposing voter is no longer guaranteed. The only foolproof way to influence the outcome is to get out the vote on your side and suppress turnout by the opposition. Negative vote buying—paying the opposition to stay home—becomes essential.

Surprisingly, the study finds that, by forcing opposing parties to shift their vote-buying strategies, the secret ballot often has the opposite

of its intended effect. Parties must jockey for position as they consider a fluid set of possible factors: how many votes have been bought by the opposing party, how does that tally affect the amount to invest in vote-buying?  
Morgan’s findings are based on a research model where voters may choose not to vote; two interest groups exist; and both the open and closed ballot are studied.  Vote buying becomes more pervasive as both sides struggle to mobilize their supporters and suppress the opposition. Furthermore, the study found the use of the secret ballot can make it easier and cheaper for parties to exert influence than with an open ballot. “Taken together, this suggests that the common intuition about the effectiveness of the secret ballot as a robust deterrent to electoral corruption needs to be revisited,” Morgan concludes.

Morgan hopes his work paves the way for a new dual policy prescription of the secret ballot combined with mandatory voting. “If you have two types of vote buying, you need two instruments to discourage such corruption.” First, by definition, the secret ballot is essential to reduce vote buying.  Potential buyers always take the risk that the paid voter doesn’t vote as agreed.  Second, compulsory voting makes it more difficult to pay a voter to abstain. “We must look at compulsory voting … mandatory voting removes all scope for vote buying in our model,” Morgan says. Morgan believes such a move could be beneficial beyond election results. “If you have to be involved, maybe you will become more informed by necessity.”  Consequently, an informed American public means the winning candidate or policy most accurately reflects the will of the people.

Morgan is Gary & Sherron Kalbach Chair in Business Administration and a member of the Haas Economic Analysis and Policy Group.

(October 29, 2008)


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