Vote Buying or Turnout Buying? Machine Politics and the Secret Ballot

This is a review of Vote Buying or Turnout Buying? Machine Politics and the Secret Ballot (2008) by Simeon Nichter. American Political Science Review 102 (February): 19-31. You can find the original in Google Scholar.

Are we observing “vote buying” (as we usually assume) or “turnout buying”? The question isn’t merely academic; “vote buying” smacks of corruption, but “turnout buying” looks more like mobilization

Suppose that the Republicans started knocking doors on your street offering you and your neighbors a new flatscreen television if you come out and vote for their candidates in the next election. Or suppose that the Democrats offered you “street money,” a direct cash payment in exchange for coming out to vote for them. How would you feel?

As Nichter points out, these two situations are far from hypothetical. These efforts to buy the vote happen occasionally in the United States,1 but frequently in other countries–such as Argentina, the focus of this study.

But Nichter asks us to reconsider what’s happening here. When we observe these behaviors, are we observing “vote buying” (as we usually assume) or “turnout buying”? The question isn’t merely academic; “vote buying” smacks of corruption, but “turnout buying” looks more like mobilization, a (usually) laudable activity.

Nichter’s central claim is that parties engage primarily in turnout buying, not vote buying (although they may engage in both, to some extent). Rather than try to purchase support from moderately opposed voters, parties try to encourage non-voting supporters to turn out. This is a major shift from previous work, which has focused on vote buying. In making this claim, Nichter responds directly to Stokes (2005), even using her own data against her.

Stokes, like almost all other political scientists, assumed that when the Argentine Peronist party gave out financial rewards to voters that it was engaging in “vote buying,” not “turnout buying.” This led her down two avenues. First, she expected that money was flowing to moderately opposed voters, the group that could be persuaded to change sides most cheaply. Second, she sought to explain how the Peronists monitored these voters; given that ballots are secret, how do the Peronists know that people aren’t taking their money and then voting against them?

By shifting the focus to “turnout buying,” Nichter doesn’t have to worry about the secret ballot. He expects that parties will give money to their strongest supporters–albeit the ones that are not inclined to vote. If this is true, then the Peronists don’t need to monitor secret ballots; if such a voter bothers to turn out, the Personists can be reasonably sure that the voter will vote for them.

Using the same data (and regressions, more or less) that Stokes used, Nichter shows that Peronist money flowed predominantly toward strong Peronist supporters. Stokes noticed this too, of course, but argued it away, saying that voters had already received the Peronist money (possibly over several election cycles) and may have inflating their claims of support to exit pollsters as a result. Still, Nichter correctly points out that “the most straightforward interpretation” is that Peronists were buying turnout, not votes.

However, the same set of regressions also showed that past voting behavior had no bearing on reward distribution. That is, even if a voter told pollsters that he did not vote in the previous election (1999), that didn’t make him more (or less) likely to have received Peronist rewards during the present election. This finding runs counter to Nichter’s expectations; nonvoters should have been more likely to receive incentives. Nichter argues the point away, but he does so using similar logic as what Stokes used to argue away the relationship between Peronist support and receiving rewards. And if you read the preceding paragraph of this summary, you’ll see that Nichter rejected the logic that time around. To use Nichter’s words (about Stokes) against him, “the most straightforward interpretation” is that the Peronists weren’t targeting non-voters.

All in all, an interesting paper. His point that the parties are supporting their own partisans is well made. His point that they are targeting those that otherwise would not vote is not. Further research is needed. As Nichter points out in his article, a panel study would be ideal to parse out exactly what is going on.

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  1. [...] next review discusses “Vote Buying or Turnout Buying? Machine Politics and the Secret Ballot ,” by Simeon Nichter, also in the most recent APSR. We’ve known for a long time that [...]