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Vote-buying is, indeed, illegal. But why?

Americans’ resistance to the practice originates from their near-mystical faith in the ballot box.

I’ve never been a fan of litigating election results in court, and the lawsuit filed last month by the loser of a Democratic primary for a U.S. House of Representatives seat in Florida appears to be as frivolous as they come. One of its many charges, however, deserves more thought. Not because it’s accurate – it’s absurd on its face — but because it speaks to democracy’s nature.

The allegation from the loser, Dale Holness, is that the winner, Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick, essentially purchased votes by promising legislation that would pay those of moderate income $1,000 per month. It’s “a gimmick designed only to motivate people to vote for her,” according to his lawsuit. Sure, why not? However, the gimmick is totally legal.

The Supreme Court has long held that a candidate’s promise that her win will result in more money in voters’ pockets is protected by the First Amendment. Cherfilus-McCormick has done exactly what every office seeker does. A public promise of cash payments to a large number of voters is permissible; yet, a private promise of money just to me would be. Candidates are authorized to buy votes wholesale but not retail, as legal expert Pamela Karlan put it.

Which leads to the question about democracy: why not allow private transactions for votes? What exactly has Passionate Partisan done wrong if he pays Fellow Citizen the going rate (perhaps around $10 or $20) to cast his ballot a certain way?

Consider the fact that we can voluntarily deprive ourselves of other constitutional rights.

When a lawyer agrees not to disclose the confidences vouchsafed by a client, nobody supposes that the lawyer’s right to free speech is unjustly infringed. Freedom of religion isn’t violated when an hourly worker forgoes weekend worship services in order to earn time-and-a-half or better.

Moreover, although frowned upon pretty much everywhere, vote-buying remains common around the world, even when the secret ballot means that the bargain is difficult to police.

The fast rise of social media has resulted in the creation of channels that facilitate electoral transactions. We can’t forget about the United States, where vote-buying has long been a problem. Scholars have discovered that votes are usually bought not by outsiders, but by friends or influential community leaders.

Academics have attempted to explain why we can sell other rights but not votes: our votes, for example, have an impact on others.

Alternatively, public officials (and, by extension, candidates for public office) have fiduciary duties to voters. Because if votes could be sold, voters would have yet another reason to think just about themselves. Because allowing votes to be sold would transfer more political power to the rich.

Although each of these arguments possesses some merit, I believe that the majority of people’s instinctive opposition to vote-selling derives from a near-mystical belief in the ballot box as the center of democracy, the site where individuals make carefully considered decisions. The voter who permits filthy lucre to influence their decision betrays their religion.

The great liberal lawyer Robert Ingersoll put it this way in an 1880 speech:

Every voter is in his own right a king; and every voter, poor and rich, wears the purple of authority alike. The man that will sell his vote is the man that abdicates the American throne. The vote-seller, said Ingersoll, is not worthy to be an American citizen.

Temptation was considered endemic. A Connecticut pastor, in an 1898 sermon, urged parishioners not to sell their votes “for a few paltry dollars or a drink of liquor.” To similar effect, a North Carolina newspaper in 1912 issued a stern caution:

Don’t sell your vote for the small sum of two or three dollars. Don’t sell your vote at all, for God hates a man that sells his vote.

Kansas Governor Alfred M. Landon, who ran against President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936, tried to turn this widespread sentiment to political advantage:

I am dedicated to this proposition that henceforth no American citizen shall ever again be put in a position where he has to sell his vote for bread.

Pro-Democratic newspapers bristled, interpreting Landon’s words as an open accusation that government officials were conditioning relief on political support.  However, the challenger obviously meant that he wanted an America where individuals did not have to rely on the dole. To put it another way, he believed it was unethical to “buy” votes by promising government support.

This brings us back to the state of Florida. As I have stated, Holness’ charge of vote-buying is frivolous; Cherfilus-McCormick did not buy any votes. Even if absurd in this case, the instinct that his lawsuit appeals to is one that has profound roots in American history. True, the image of the disinterested and rational voter is a work of fiction, but it is often by such fictions that democracy is preserved.

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