Not Everything Sells Better on the Internet

Clearly, if you want to sell your vote in the next presidential election, you want to do it the old fashioned way through the local saloon, not on the internet. The legal troubles of this Minnesota teen attest to that.

This guy’s hijinks did, however, give us a glimpse into the market price of a vote.

The minimum bid was set at $10. Nobody bid on his item. The failure to attract bidders is consistent with the arguments that Dubner and I have made about the puzzle of why people vote. Any individual’s vote is almost certain not to determine a presidential election (especially if that vote is cast in a state like Minnesota). Thus, the market price for that vote should be essentially zero. Certainly well below ten dollars.

Of course, the fact that bidding on the item would have gotten you charged with a felony might also have discouraged bidding.


Why vote in elections if your one vote won't make a difference? OK, Dubner, why should any reader post an opinion on this blog when it won't make a difference either? The world isn't going to change over a blog-post. Both voting and blog-posting are just one man (or woman) expressing their opinion.


Regarding the rationality of voting, I think you are also missing something else: it is not just the victor that matters, but the size of the victory. In that sense, every vote *does* count, regardless of whether the winner is guaranteed or not.


@13 has it right; in a secret ballot system like ours, a vote can't actually be sold. I would argue this in court were I the kid in question.

Martin Saavedra

First, people may not have bid because they knew it was illegal, and they were likely to get caught.

Second, let see how much it would have cost John Kerry to win the 2004 election if he had bought votes for 10 dollars each. He would have need 18 of Bushes electoral votes to win the election indisputably.

10060 more votes gives him a majority in Iowa and 7 electoral votes. 5989 votes would have given him New Mexico and 5 more electoral votes. And 99524 gives him Colorado and 9 electoral votes, and thus gives him the election.

Therefore, he could have won the election buy purchasing (and being selective about where he purchases the votes) 115,573 votes, which for $10 a pop, would have ran him $1,155,730, which I think the Democratic party would have easily been willing to pay for the election.

That all being said, I'm sure if buying votes were legal, then Bush would have bought some as well.


Matt Glassman

The academic literature on the irrationality of voting makes sense --- to a point. When viewed from the perspective of the individual, the incentives seem rather dim.

The history of the late 19th century, however, seems to indicate that vote buying was a significant portion of the total voter fraud problem. And yes, the price was cheap --- often just a beer. But it was worth collecting.

Note that the secret ballot may do a lot to decrease the value of a vote. Since it's introduction, vote buying has virtually ceased, since it's nearly impossible to confirm your vote selection now, meaning you can accept the bribe and then reneg in the booth.


Going off of #3's comment, who would be the people most likely to vote.

Ignoring the radical fringes of income level, I think the lower and lower middle class actually have a higher opportunity cost than the Upper middle and upper class because they are paid by the hour whereas the upper and upper middle tend to be salaried employees with little to no chance at effecting bonuses.

The lower class can certainly gain a lot through social programs and the upperclass can gain a lot through tax cuts. The middle class probably gets screwed here.

I'd say that the poor would have the best chance at taking the election just because having the power would be so life altering. The rich guy may get to buy another car or the beach house in the Medditerainian, but the poor guy gets healthcare and affordable housing.


The law notwithstanding, it'd work if I gathered a critical mass of voters in each swing state, auctioned the votes as a bundle, and split the proceeds. There would need to be ways to monitor the voters. A well-designed auction could solve the collection action problem on the buyer's side by, for example, having only two bidders (Democrat and Republican) and allowing anyone to donate to either pot.


Maybe no one bid because they knew the seller couldn't (or wouldn't) deliver.

And #7, I buy all my shoes on the internet. Try on at store, buy on Ebay for a fraction of the price.



I wonder how much the shipping and handling for delivering said individual to the voting district in demand would be - surely much more than the price of the vote. That's probably what hindered people from bidding on it.


Candidates are always "buying" votes with "promises." This is what needs to be illegal.

It will be a happy day when our politicans pass a meaningful law that effectively reins them in.

IMHO they are all power "money" hungry.

I wish Levitt and Dubner would do a study on the wealth differential, in terms of net worth, from entry to exit of a political office.


Since the outcome of your election affects so many outside your borders, so greatly, perhaps its time to set up a market place outside the US, where your authorities cannot proscecute, to allow people who really care to positively influence your elections. Looking at your low voter turnout, the influence of negative attack ads and the ongoing corruption in the "democratic" process, this would likely be for the better. Its obvious that very few Americans care about this but they do care about money.


Actually, we may vote for the same reason that we have blue eyes, or are allergic to strawberries - genetics.


Block vote selling was already tried as a concept. Google "" and look for news stories from mid to late 2000.

Kevin Camp


I can't believe guys as bright as you and Dubner can't figure out the whole voting thing. Just think of it as a race to collect the most money and each person has one penny to give to either person. Would the penny be useless? If so, please immediately convert all of your money to pennies and I will be happy to come by and take all that "worthless" stuff off your hands


Let me get this straight -- we can't sell our votes, but politicians can buy our votes? Gas tax holidays, tax cuts, so-called faith-based spending. What are these if not offers to confer economic benefits if elected to office (re: in exchange for votes)?


There's also the problem that the bidder has no way to verify that the seller actually votes for the winning bidder's chosen candidate.


I think I can put a better market value on a single vote - A fifth of cheap liquor.

In the mid 80's, I had a friend who was a precinct captain in Chicago. One of his jobs on election day was to get a whole bunch of bottles and give them to the derilects in his ward in exchange for a vote.

Clearly, the machine was willing to pay the cost of cheap fifth for a single vote.


Voting, even in large elections, can be rational, See, "Voting as a Rational Choice: Why and How People Vote To Improve the Well-Being of Others" (available at

"[V]oting is rational even in large elections if individuals have ‘social’ preferences and are concerned about social welfare. In a large election, the probability that a vote is decisive is small, but the social benefits at stake in the election are large [think presidential budgets], and so the expected utility benefit of voting to an individual with social preferences can be significant."


I wonder if we could calculate the average price of a vote on the Senate Ways and Means commitee?

The real test would be to find the votes that congressmen made that risked trouble in re-election and what lobbyist "convinced" them to make it. It isn't hard to convince them to vote for more prisons and supposedly cheaper pills for grandma. But voting against VA benefits or the like?

Ms. (as my father would say) "I am the law"

He always said: just kidding.

She says: Heh, no trouble at all.

He says: what if?

She says: not possible.