Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2020

Money Can Buy Him Love: Vote-Buying in Russia

Money Can Buy Him Love: Vote-Buying in Russia
Putin in Tears

By the time you’re reading this, I hope you’ve already heard the news. Last night Vladimir Putin was crowned the once-and-future President of Russia, taking in over 60 percent of the popular vote. Though both international and domestic election monitors reported widespread voting irregularities across the country, the level of electoral fraud is not suspected to be of such proportion to put the results of the election in doubt. All in all, it was a crazy day in Russia: the U.S. ambassador’s Twitter was hacked, web-camera voyeurism took off, and topless female protestors tried crashing Putin at the ballot box. To top it off, Putin himself shed tears (the wind was strong!) at a the lavish coronation ceremony held outside of the Kremlin and attended by tens of thousands of fervent supporters.

But just how naturally passionate were those supporters? My first post focused on the idea of buying an election through large cash transfers given to broad categories of voters (teachers, doctors, veterans, etc.). Sadly, the vote-buying doesn’t stop there in Russia, or in a wide range of developing democracies, for that matter. Russian politicians regularly offer massive sums of money and other material goods to likely and potential voters in exchange for their vote, as well as their often physical presence at rallies and demonstrations. Try this hypothetical. Say you’re walking out of your neighborhood grocery store (bodega, organic farmer’s market, socialist co-op) and a colorfully dressed young Romney (or Obama) supporter offers you hard cash for your vote in November (seemingly without legal consequence). Could you resist? What’s your price?

For Russia, what is clear is that many succumb. According to a November 2011 nationwide poll, over a quarter of the Russian population would sell their vote if offered, even for the low, low price of $3. But really, how could you turn down the actual going rate of $40-60 dollars in cash money for simply checking a box? Bring your friends, falsify votes, vote numerous times—earn bonuses based on your output. Throw in a day off from work. Price for attending Putin’s massive, celebratory rally (a paid “flash mob”): another $20.

Vote-buying in yesterday’s election also went way beyond cash. I scrolled through Karta Narusheniye, the user-submitted (though unverified) catalog of violations of electoral fraud, and some of the reports were bewildering. In Sakha, a Far-Eastern region, a lottery was held for potential voters, where in exchange for their vote they could win cars, a refrigerator, teapots, televisions, and an assortment of other prizes. If they voted for Putin, the residents of the Kalmykiya Republic received new gas pipelines and cable television. Thankfully, not all hope is lost in the world; a candidate for the city council in Omsk distributed energy-saving lamps to local citizens. Nature is saved, democracy not so much.

The trick is to devise a system where those who are paid actually show up and vote. Cross-country research suggests that local party activists play a huge role in this; when you’re paid off by someone that personally knows you, knows where you work, and can track your actions, then it’s much harder for a voter to take their money and run. In other instances, you don’t get paid until you provide physical evidence of your vote (clear out memory on your iPhone’s camera!). The pendulum of course swings both ways in this dilemma. Often times organizers fail to keep their promises, stiffing those recently converted activists of their hard-earned pay. A rumor struck last night that a couple youths got pretty aggressive with their “bosses” who came up short in their accounting after the rally.

But is vote-buying harmful for democracy? Notwithstanding that nutty lottery (which I would have loved to witness), the relative price in Russia is rather low. In China, voters can literally buy iPads with their earnings. What this means is that in Russia, poorer people get targeted with vote-buying much more frequently. Some would argue that this is good; turnout increases and more people are introduced to “democratic” processes. However, handouts like this create dependency and asymmetry between voters and politicians; a one-time gift is substituted for real accountability over the entire politician’s term. Powerful and wealthy politicians can literally buy elections without offering real solutions or policies to improve citizens’ welfare in the long-run. The academic debate is far from settled, but on the streets, the divisive issue pops up regularly on the list of complaints from Russian protestors who are fed up with the way elections are conducted. When Navalny and the other anti-regime leaders take the stage tonight at the opposition protests, part of the argument against the legitimacy of the elections is built on regime-affiliated politicians building an unfair and illegal machine to co-opt voters. The alternative when so many voters are willing to take money for their votes remains unknown.

P.S. Accurate statistics about vote-buying are extremely hard to come by; it isn’t easy acknowledge to a perfect stranger (the surveyor) that you “sold your country” for a given price. Beginning next month however, Timothy FryeOra John Reuter, and I hope to have a better grasp about how widespread the practice is through the use of some neat survey tricks (I’ll update accordingly when we get the results).