Would Democracy Work Better If You Could Buy More Votes? One Economist Says Yes

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Would voting work if we had to pay?

Voters elected President Barack Obama to a second term Tuesday, with impressive turnouts across the country, an outcome that left ardent Romney supporters wondering what more, if anything, they could have done to swing the result their way. And while millions of citizens stayed home, perhaps apathetically believing that their vote wouldn't matter, many others on both sides of the question so vehemently wanted to see their candidate win that they'd have voted multiple times if they could.

So why not let them?

That's the theory proposed by economist Glen Weyl, a professor at the University of Chicago, who has proposed a plan that would allow people to put their money where their mouths are by paying to vote as many times as they'd like.

Weyl's system would require a voter to pay an increasing amount for each vote cast; the cost of each vote would be the square of the total number of votes. If your first vote costs $1, two votes would be $4 and three votes $9. Want to swing a small local election all by yourself? In this scenario, 100 votes would cost you $10,000, a pittance for men with names like Koch, Trump, or Buffet.

The crux of this proposal is that, as "Freakonomics" author Steven D. 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."

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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.

Human nature being what it is, a few snags could hold up smooth execution of this system once implemented.

"I think voters might do a very poor job, at least initially, estimating how many votes they should buy because they would have a bad sense for the chance of a tied election," Weyl said. "This could lead different voters with similar preferences to buy very different numbers of votes, which would undermine the system."

To combat that, Weyl is also working on an applet that could help voters determine how many votes it makes sense for them to buy. Of course, no computer program can truly get inside people's heads and set a value on an individual's electoral motivation. But there is substantial light that can be shed.

"People's optimal votes are proportional to two things," Weyl said. "A) How much they care -- or in economist-speak, the maximum amount they would be willing to pay to switch the election outcome for sure, and B) the chance that they will be pivotal -- that buying an additional vote will switch the election."

In Weyl's app concept, people would be able to plug in A, and to compute B. If A and B were then multiplied together, the resulting number would help people figure out how many votes to buy.

The obvious potential criticism of such a system rests in the fact that the rich would have more influence over the outcomes of elections -- but given the current state of campaign financing, dark money and super PACs, don't they already?

We're a long way away from swapping our current one-person-one-vote democracy for a buy-your-vote system, but who's to say that Weyl's idea isn't a more elegant solution than the electoral college?

Maybe it's time to resurrect and rehabilitate an old saying from more politically dicey eras: "Vote early and vote often."

(Note: This article was first published on Nov. 6, and updated on Nov. 7 to reflect the outcome of the 2012 presidential race.)
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