Is it Smarter to Sell Your Vote or to Cast it?

Half of N.Y.U. students say they would sell their right to vote for $1 million, according to a poll published yesterday by the Washington Square News.

Sixty-six percent said they would trade their voting rights for a free four-year ride at N.Y.U. (roughly $160,000, including room and board). Twenty percent would give up the vote for an iPod Touch (value: $299).

We know that voting doesn’t make good economic sense. Dubner and Levitt have written about the utility — or is it futility? — of voting here, here and here. But is it smarter to sell your vote than to cast it?

George W. Bush spent $345 million to win re-election in 2004, according to, a cost of around $5.56 a vote. John Kerry spent just over $5.24 per vote. Those numbers don’t include third party spending, but for the sake of a hypothetical let’s just say votes in a presidential election cost $5.50 apiece. It should follow that selling your one vote for $1 million could buy you enough influence to capture 181,818 more. So maybe this poll doesn’t demonstrate youth apathy, it demonstrates youth economic savvy. (Then again, if you’re a fringe candidate, it’s possible to spend vast sums in politics without having any impact whatsoever.)

But how about you? Would you sell your vote for $1 million, or an iPod Touch, or free college tuition? And what would democracy look like if you could?


(The perceived real difference to me between candidate A and candidate B) X (The probability that I'm correct in this perception) X (The probability of my vote effecting the outcome of the election)

Is this greater or less than the value of an iPod touch? Given the last term is probably an exceptionally small decimal, and I often can't really predict the value of a candidate (I was optimistic about both Bill Clinton and Bush, and disappointed), I would probably take the iPod. Shame.


The more interesting question is: if there was an open market for votes, how low would the price go? Would it indeed go as low as ~$5.50 per vote?


How would raising the voting age to 21 have any effect whatsoever? Do people stop responding to economic incentives at 21? Doesn't seem like much of a choice to me, cold hard cash (or an ipod or tuition) v. a right to vote that is virtually meaningless (which a large percentage of people don't exercise anyways).

Nate #8 was exactly right, sit outside with a box of ipods and the numbers would probably be closer to 90-95%. And that's amongst people that were actually motivated enough to get out and attempt to vote in the first place.


The democratic process has become so bloated and complex that not selling your right to vote for essentially ANY monetary value--hopefully a favorable outcome--would be foolish!


George W. Bush spent $345 million to win re-election in 2004, according to, a cost of around $5.56 a vote. John Kerry spent just over $5.24 per vote.

This is pretty sloppy thinking for an economics blog, no?

Firstly, the campaign spending only sways a relatively small fraction of the voters. Most voters are decided in the general election long before any ads are run. Secondly, we should be looking at the marginal cost of a vote not the average cost of a vote and, thirdly, the value of a vote (in ability to sway the election) depends a great deal on which state you vote in.

A general election vote in NY State is worth next to nothing. A marginal vote in Ohio or Florida? I bet those go for more than $100 a pop.


So, many people are willing to sell their vote. Does anyone know of any law that says you cannot?


I have a vote and don't know what to do with it. I don't have an ipod, but I know what to do with it. An easy decision for me.


>> Would you sell your vote for $1 million

>> or an iPod Touch

>> or free college tuition?

as you've shown before, my one vote doesn't make good economic sense, so why not trade it for something that does!...


It is smarter to cast a vote, of course. But an even smarter move would be to pass a law barring NYU graduates from ever going to the poll and voting. It would be the most cost effective way of safeguarding our democracy.


This response by the NYU students is not as shocking as it seems. The yes-respondents assumed they did not lose their right to vote forever, and they assumed that all other people in America would still have the right to vote. If the question had been would you give up your right to vote and democracy forever for the cost of the 4-year tuition, the overwhelming response would have been no.

Voting may not make economic sense but if everyone lost the right to do it, then it certainly would.


Yes, yes, and yes.

Democracy would just look like more of what it is now. The candidate that raises the most is vaulted to the forefront, (whether this is the cause or the effect of being the frontrunner, I do not know) and becomes a serious contender to win a election. Whoever spends the most often receives the most votes.

Selling votes directly to competing candidates for personal gain would probably be more beneficial to the economy than having them spend money on advertising. With $5.50 I might be able to buy lunch, but with constant exposure to different political options, how am I better off?


The simple solution is to sell your vote for multiples of $5.50, say $550, and donate the money to the candidate of your choice.

How about auctioning it off on eBay ?


If I were one of the few people being solicited, I would definitely sell my vote. However, if everyone in the country was being solicited, it would be a different story. In that case, I would go and vote, as I think most people would. Most of us know that one person's vote doesn't make a difference. But if democracy were truly on the line, I think those would be high enough stakes to avoid the tragedy of the commons thinking (why shouldn't I get paid if everyone else is?). For that reason, most people would not sell their votes.


first, why are more students willing to sell their vote for $160k (66%) than are willing to sell for $1 million (50%)???

Frankly, all of these #s seem too low. There is a self-deception thing going on in the survey. I bet if we stood at the front of the pooling booth line with a box full of ipod touches, we could get virtually everyone to take one and walk away...


Yes, yes, and yes.

Not much would change. People with the most money (i.e. the buyers of votes) would make the decisions as to who gets elected. Isn't that how it works now?

G. Owen Schaefer

I would sell my vote, I think. If nothing else, the money could go to charity to affect real change...

BUT, I would oppose a policy allowing the right to vote to be sold directly on the open market(and I do think a significant number of people would sell that right for 5 and a half bucks). If voting rights could be sold, then politicians would likely "buy out" individuals from the opposite party. For the same reason that buying a vote *for* a candidate should not be allowed, we should not allow politicians to spend money to disenfranchise individuals likely to vote against them.

Then again, if the "vote-purchase" policy was limited to hundreds of thousands of dollars, or even thousands of dollars, I can't imagine any politician would actually buy anyone's right to vote - too expensive (look at how Giuliani and McCain opted out of the Straw Poll, and that was only under a hundred *for* a vote, not even to force someone not to vote). So, who are we imagining as the purchaser? I'm hoping not the rest of the taxpaying, voting public, because then we'd be punished for voting.



I would sell my vote, but lie about it (unless I was going to vote that way anyway).


Of course I'd want to sell my vote for $1 million. I'm sure I could buy thousands of votes with the money I made. Could I then sell those for $1 million too?


The best argument I've seen for raising the voting age to at least the same required to be a member of Congress. If you don't know what that is, then you shouldn't be allowed to vote. And of course if you're not allowed to vote, you can't sell it.

Walter Mitty

The simple answer is that you would have to be on crack not to sell your vote for such a high value item, but there are many other variables to consider. If this offer was made to enough people to swing an election, that would be VERY significant. Then you must consider how much you despise the candidate offering to purchase your vote. I would hope that most people would not sell their vote to someone who would do tremendous harm to the Country.

Realistically, who could afford to swing an election by paying $1MM, or even an ipod, for a single vote? Certainly not someone who needed many votes.