How buying votes directly might actually work

A fascinating idea from Glen Weyl, an economist and professor at the University of Chicago, as reported by Andrew Sullivan at The Dish and Freakonomics author Steven Levitt on his blog:

Glen Weyl proposed a voting mechanism where every voter can vote as many times as he or she likes but is required pay each time. The trick is “the amount you have to pay is a function of the square of the number of votes you cast.” Steven D. Levitt summarizes:

Just for the sake of argument, let’s say the first vote costs you $1.  Then to vote a second time would cost $4.  The third vote would be $9, the fourth $16, and so on.  A person who cast four votes would have to pay a total of $30 (1+4+9+16=30).  Twenty votes would cost $2,870.  One hundred votes would cost you more than $300,000.  Five hundred votes would cost more than $40 million. So eventually, no matter how much you like a candidate, you choose to vote a finite number of times.

Levitt defends the idea against charges that the system favors the rich:

In our existing system of campaign contributions, there can be little doubt that the rich already have far more influence than the poor.  Presumably in our current system if a rich person spent $40 million to try to influence an election, that rich person would surely hope to change the way more than 500 people vote, whereas in this system that is all the votes you get to cast for $40 million.  So restricting campaign spending, in conjunction with this voting scheme, might be more democratic than our current system.

Levitt acknowledges that “it is much cheaper to buy the first votes of a lot of uninterested citizens than it is to pay the price for my 100th vote,” and is unlikely to be implemented any time soon. That’s putting it mildly.

Agreed, but god, it’s interesting to think about. An article on Daily Finance – also quoting Levitt – adds:

The crux of this proposal is that, as [Levitt] points out, “people end up voting in proportion to how much they care about the election outcome. The system captures not just which candidate you prefer, but how strong your preferences are.” This, Levitt notes, turns out to create a Pareto efficiency, an optimal situation in which no one in society can be made better off without making someone else worse off. In other words, it’s the best situation overall for people as a group.

Of course, what makes sense in the abstract might not work in the voting booth.

“There are many things I still would need to understand to be comfortable advocating this system in any practical setting,” Weyl explained. “That being said, I am not developing it as a purely academic proposal, and if my preliminary investigations are confirmed in my continued research, I would very much advocate it being used in many practical settings.”

The applications could be as wide-reaching as voting within corporate decision-making and broader elections or referenda. The money is distributed back to the participants in Weyl’s system, with the contributions used for the benefit of the group. In the case of a corporation, Weyl said, the money would flow into the corporate accounts, and be allocated as dividends according to the number of shares individuals own. For elections, the funds would flow into the government’s coffers, which could be used for social spending or tax reduction.

“My personal preference would be to see it used to reduce the inequality that would, in the first place, allow the rich to buy more votes,” Weyl said.

What a world that would be.


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