Some Musings on the Market for Votes

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(c) Lisa R. Pruitt, 2010, Polling place, Murray, Arkansas.

Written by Lisa R. Pruitt

I’ve thought about vote buying a lot over the course of my life.   I’m not talking about how corporations and other affluent actors donate money to campaigns in hopes of swaying legislators’ votes, or even lower-scale political patronage type activity.  I’m talking about the phenomenon at the individual level in what is arguably its most base and disturbing form:  The payment and acceptance of cold hard cash for one’s vote in a particular political race or slate of races.

I’ve been thinking about vote buying again lately because I discussed it a bit in this recent essay and because a friend from Kentucky mentioned that, in the wake of the state’s May 18 primary, federal investigations into vote buying are underway in several counties in the Eastern part of the state.  (Read some  news coverage of those investigations here and here.  Also, here’s another interesting Kentucky story from earlier this decade.)

My interest in vote buying goes back to my childhood.  My father was involved in vote buying in the rural Arkansas county where I grew up, and he was quite open it.  I recall rather vividly one election night when he and other local men gathered at our kitchen table with the paper ballots cast that day.   If memory serves me well, they were checking to see if various people had, in fact, voted as they had been paid to do.   This was in the 1970s and 1980s in rural Arkansas, where people still cast paper ballots; in fact, I think they still do in Newton County.  My father was a life-long Democrat who bought votes on behalf of the party’s local candidates, but the local Republicans engaged in the practice, too.  Indeed, the Newton County Judge (in Arkansas, the county judge is the chief elected administrative officer) was convicted of vote buying in the late 1980s and spent some time in federal prison.  U.S. v. Campbell, 845 F.2d 782 (8th Cir. 1988).

I recall questioning my mother about the hows and whys of this practice in the same way that my son now questions me about the hows and whys of things like why people don’t fall out of roller coasters and what the sky is made of.   She couldn’t answer all of my questions any more satisfactorily than I can answer those of my child, but some of the questions and answers included these:

  • Where did my father and his cronies get the money to buy the votes?  I knew none of the people dong the buying were wealthy, and most–like my family–lived pretty much hand to mouth.  Were they spending their own money?  If so, what benefit did they get from electing the county judge or sheriff of their choice?  Getting the nearest dirt road graded came up a lot in my mom’s answers to this one, which suggests that vote buying is, in part, an exercise in political patronage.
  • How could the vote buyer be certain that the vote seller actually delivered his or her vote?  I later understood the paper ballot system and its numbering better.  This wikipedia entry suggests other ways in which votes were and are verified.  So much for the secret ballot!  In the Campbell case, the voter simply turned her absentee ballot over to the buyer.
  • How many votes did you have to buy to sway an election?  In a county where only a few thousand votes are cast in county-wide elections, not that many.  As far as I could tell, most vote buying was focused on local races, as for sheriff, assessor.
  • How much did a vote cost?   Not much, apparently.  I recall my mom telling me that it was as little as $5 or $10.  According to the report in the Campbell case, the defendant bought various citizens’ votes for as little as $30 each.  Some folks held out for as much as $50.  This story suggests a range of $10-$50 in eastern Kentucky, sometimes accompanied by whiskey or beer.
  • Why would anyone ever sell his or her vote?  As a young person, I was capable of great righteous indignation about various things, and vote buying was one of them.  I must have taken civics class very seriously because I was truly outraged that anyone would sell his or her constitutionally endowed right to have a say in our great democracy.  And yes, I also condemned the vote buyers.

Now that I’ve been studying rural poverty for several years–especially the sort of persistent poverty that marks counties like the one in which I was raised (see a map of all persistent poverty counties in the U.S. here and note that 340 of the 386 of them are nonmetro)–I’m starting to see that the answer isn’t (or isn’t only) that  those selling their votes (or for that matter buying them) don’t share my vision of citizenship and democracy.  It may well be that those selling their votes actually need the money–I mean, really need the money.  Yes, even $10–never mind $50–may make a big difference in their lives, at least for that month.

A recent visit to my mom in Arkansas and seeing the film “Winter’s Bone” have both served to remind me of the value of a $20 bill in the rural Ozarks.

All of this leaves me wondering:  Is even democracy a luxury for the poor?

Cross-posted to UC Davis Faculty Blog and Legal Ruralism.