The cost of elections

  • Lifestyle
  • Sunday, 17 Mar 2013

In a democracy, the people’s vote is ‘sacred’ but that has never stopped unscrupulous politicians from buying votes.

In the last few weeks, it has been interesting to see video footage provided by the Kenyan Human Rights Commission allegedly of vote-buying in the Kenyan elections. Considering that the Kenyan presidential election in 2007 degenerated into unrest after accusations of vote rigging were made, many hope that the current scandal isn’t a prelude to something more serious.

In one of the videos, you can clearly see young Kenyans compliantly lining up, while a candidate thumbs through sheafs of bank notes. Clearly, the candidates hope that money would be enough to buy them votes.

Why any political candidate should expect so little from their constituencies can be easily explained when you see how many stoop so low to meet them.

We know it is wrong. Many countries have laws against bribery during elections. The Malaysian Election Offences Act of 1954 makes it clear that offer of “any money or valuable consideration” to “induce any elector or voter to vote or refrain from voting” is a crime.

But the question I have is: How could bribery possibly work if your vote is secret? Why would you bribe somebody to vote for you if you couldn’t check if they did so or not?

Indeed, one of the main reasons for a secret ballot is to make sure voters can decide without fear of coercion or being susceptible to a bribe. A paper from the Journal Of Artificial Intelligence Research partially supports this by concluding that secret ballots do increase the cost of bribing to win when there are large numbers of voters (in mathematical terms, the problem is NP-complete).

There are other conditions. One is that there isn’t an “ideal” cost of bribe that will persuade voters to comply. In Kenya, this does not seem to be the case, since offers of only a few dollars per voter are readily accepted.

Given that the latest unemployment figures were pegged at 40%, it may be unsurprising that people take whatever they can.

Another criterion is that we cannot know in advance which voters are susceptible to bribes. But a report from China claims that blood relatives and clans alone can influence village elections, and even with bribes set at about RMB1,200 (about RM600), it’s easy to swing elections.

However, you don’t always have to bribe somebody to vote for your candidate to win an election. You can also bribe somebody who supports the opponent.

For example, a preliminary report by the Law Society of Kenya indicates there were identity card-buying – people are selling their cards to guarantee they would not be able to vote.

Conversely, you can also bribe everybody just to turn up and vote. This can be effective if you think you hold the advantage numerically, but worry that voters may not want be bothered to turn up on election day.

Inducements to vote for your party can be seen in subtle ways, from offering “petrol money” to cover transportation costs, to laying out rest areas in local party offices, with free refreshments and goodie bags. Although we probably don’t think of these as bribes, a candidate in a local election in Kansas, the United States is being accused of violating state ethics law for including on his flyer a coupon for a US$5.99 chicken fry meal at a local restaurant.

Even worse, a paper titled Negative Vote Buying And The Secret Ballot, co-authored by an economist together with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), concludes that secret ballots may make it cheaper to buy elections under certain conditions because it can be relatively cheap to persuade people to not go out and vote.

In all this discussion, I have not yet seen the problem approached from the context of culture. Specifically, it may be that those voters lining up in Kenya don’t think what they’re doing is at all wrong. They may believe that it is the responsibility of government (including candidates who want to form a government) to take care of them, and that handouts are the most direct way of doing so.

In fact, a candidate who doesn’t shower them with gifts and money may be construed as being “uncaring” or “selfish”. Or it might be a more cynical outlook – that by voting for the briber who gives you the most, you set a higher market rate for future elections, maximising how much you can “earn”.

This creates fresh expectation and a new culture is born.

The article that I referred to earlier about vote buying in China reported that people said, “Whoever gets elected will eventually become corrupt, so just choose the one with the highest bid”.

In fact, you can have the best laws that spell out how illegal bribery is, but people will still drift whichever way the prevailing wind blows. Although the Kenyan elections this year were free of violence, allegations of corruption still ran high.

The leading contender has refused to concede defeat even after all the votes have been counted and vows to bring the case to court. Of course, the fact that a member of his party was on one of those vote-buying videos now seems irrelevant, even though we all know that it’s wrong.

■ Logic is the antithesis of emotion but mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi’s theory is that people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions. Speak to him at

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Opinion , election bribery


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