What’s wrong with vote buying


Almost everyone would agree that vote buying is morally wrong, and that prohibitions on vote buying are morally justified. Yet, recently, several philosophers have argued that vote buying is morally permissible, and (in some cases) that it should be legally permitted. This paper begins by examining and criticising arguments that have been offered in defence of vote buying. I then go on to consider existing attempts to explain the wrongness of vote buying, arguing that none is wholly successful. I then advance a novel account of the wrongness of vote buying. Vote buying is objectionable, I argue, because it involves a failure of respect for one’s fellow citizens as autonomous agents. I also consider the implications of my account for a number of other controversial practices.

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  1. 1.

    See United States v. McCranie, 169 F.3d 723, 726 (11th Cir. 1999).

  2. 2.

    For this reason, I do not address Freiman’s (2014, pp. 762–4) argument that voters have the right to vote as they choose, and that this entails a right to vote in accordance with others’ directions in return for some material benefit. This, if successful, would at best establish a right to sell one’s vote, rather than a right to buy others’ votes.

  3. 3.

    See Taylor (2018, pp. 4–8) for a critique of this argument.

  4. 4.

    See also Buchanan and Tullock (1962, pp. 270–81), Copp (2000, p. 87), and Tobin (1970, p. 269).

  5. 5.

    See, among others, Freiman (2014, p. 764), Levmore (2000−2001), and Philipson and Snyder (1996).

  6. 6.

    Though, on this point, see Archer et al. (Forthcoming).

  7. 7.

    Strictly, this function (and the function below) should include terms for the expressive payoffs of voting (or exercising control over some set of votes), and the costs of doing so. We can safely leave these terms out for simplicity.

  8. 8.

    See also Levmore (2000–2001, pp. 122–5).

  9. 9.

    Which, of course, is not to deny that the members of G may be wronged by I’s conduct, here, in some other way.

  10. 10.

    There is experimental evidence in support of this claim. See Feddersen et al. (2009), for example.

  11. 11.

    See also Christiano (2003, p. 55), Satz (2010, p. 102), Sunstein (1994, p. 849), and Tobin (1970, p. 269).

  12. 12.

    It may do so contingently, of course. Officials might take directions from someone able to exert substantial influence over large numbers of others.


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For helpful comments and criticisms on earlier versions of this paper, not all of which I have been able to address, I thank Geoffrey Brennan, Lisa Hill, Philip Pettit, Nicholas Southwood, Laura Valentini, and Daniel Wodak, together with an anonymous reviewer for Philosophical Studies, and a seminar audience at the Australian National University.

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Correspondence to Lachlan Montgomery Umbers.

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Umbers, L.M. What’s wrong with vote buying. Philos Stud 177, 551–571 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-018-1194-4

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  • Vote buying
  • Markets
  • Respect
  • Autonomy
  • Equality
  • Voting