Taken together, our data shows that a clear majority of survey respondents do not approve of vote-selling and consider it to be practically, rather than morally, unacceptable. Practical considerations are also influential when vote-selling is seen as acceptable. On average, respondents expect half of their friends and neighbours to approve of vote-selling. In addition, the results of the scenario exercise imply that respondents understood vote-selling as independent of the behaviours or beliefs of others. This points to vote-selling as a behaviour primarily driven by material context and immediate consequence – practical and pressing issues that override idealized beliefs related to electoral rights and democracy.
In the context of Nigeria, it is very likely that these findings reflect the circumstances of poverty, deprivation and the urgent unmet material needs that are faced by millions. Unemployment, extreme poverty and its material implications (e.g. food insecurity and hunger) were a central theme in our focus group discussions. In general, participants felt that the precarious political and economic situations of impoverished voters make them particularly vulnerable to vote-selling behaviour. For example, a participant in Enugu, reflecting on the precarious position of poorer voters, said that ‘politicians operate on the principle of “make them hungry and give them food to eat”’. Another participant, in Adamawa, suggested that ‘despite the level of awareness [of the harms of vote-selling behaviour] […] the electorates may be influenced by poverty and food insecurity’. Yet another participant, in Abuja, claimed that ‘poverty and hunger play a huge role in the act[s] of vote-buying and -selling’.
Further, these findings are consistent with the relevant literature, which also suggests that poorer voters are more likely to be targeted by, and are more susceptible to, vote-buying schemes because it is precisely poorer voters who do not have many options (both in terms of communicating their political preferences and in terms of satisfying their most urgent material needs). Moreover, vote-buying schemes also often offer more in terms of financial gain than many in this group would earn from a day’s work. Material deprivation, in the context of high levels of unemployment and poverty, can thus be seen as a significant cause of vote-selling behaviour, as political elites exploit conditions of economic hardship and offer private discretionary transfers that are more likely to be accepted in exchange for political support.
It is well understood that in every country where vote markets thrive, they produce a range of harmful consequences. Vote-trading enables state capture and undermines democracy, as corrupt politicians are likely to be elected, rather than voted out.
These survey findings, interview data and focus group discussions also reflect a shared understanding of powerful norms of transactional and distributive politics in Nigeria. As is the case in many democracies around the world, unquestioned money in politics, winner-takes-all elections, a lack of consequences for candidates and political parties which engage in vote-buying, and the lack of influence held by citizens in the affairs of political parties and elected governments all contribute to a context where political actors establish and maintain relationships with constituents through distributive electoral politics. These conditions serve to reinforce the relatively weak moral justification for a refusal to engage in vote-selling and the stronger practical incentives people associate with the practice.
Explaining the paradox of vote-selling
It is well understood that in every country where vote markets thrive, they produce a range of harmful consequences. Vote-trading enables state capture and undermines democracy, as corrupt politicians are likely to be elected, rather than voted out. It also allows wealthy citizens a stronger voice in the voting booth, while poorer citizens trade their political support for relatively minor payments. In addition, it encourages the diversion of public funds into cronyism by creating incentives for politicians to keep voters dependent on these exchanges.
Vote-selling behaviour is therefore puzzling, because all voters, especially poorer voters, are impacted by these harms. All voters have a collective interest in a political system that punishes rather than rewards corruption, that safeguards political equality rather than undermines it, and that facilitates economic development rather than stifles it. And yet, in electoral democracies such as Nigeria, vote markets thrive, and those who sell their votes are primarily the poor – those who are harmed the most.
Our analysis sheds light on this puzzle by calling attention to the structure of costs and benefits voters face. When voters believe that most people in their community will sell their votes, the likelihood of a vote changing the electoral outcome goes down, and the opportunity costs of not selling go up. This creates an economic incentive to sell one’s vote to the highest bidder and reinforces a transactional relationship with elected officials which makes post-election accountability less likely. Widespread vote-selling behaviour in turn produces the significant collective political and economic costs outlined earlier in this section, and further intensifies the socio-economic pressures on poorer voters and poor governance context that make vote-selling an attractive option in the first place – a ‘social trap’ of corruption.
Implications for anti-corruption policy
A central objective of this briefing paper was to highlight how social beliefs and expectations influence vote-selling. The picture that emerges of vote-selling behaviour in Nigeria is one in which a clear majority do not approve of vote-selling but believe that many in their community will sell their vote regardless of what the community – or they themselves – think about the practice in principle. In the context of acute and widespread socio-economic needs, this sets up an incentive structure in which individual voters may as well maximize their short-term gain – from a payment or gift in exchange for selling their vote – as their observations of vote-selling during elections suggest that voting honestly will make no difference and risks leaving them at a material disadvantage compared to the rest of the community.
This has several important implications for policy. The first is that moralistic pleas asking voters to vote according to their conscience rather than sell their votes may be ineffective, as this will not alter the practical incentive structure driving the behaviour. Instead, targeted information campaigns and other forms of persuasive political communication that expose the costs that vote-selling imposes on communities and political institutions might be a more fruitful way to help individuals break out of the social trap of vote-selling. Such campaigns should be designed with a long-term, post-election view of linking the narrative of poor governance outcomes and personal deprivation to vote-trading practices.
Strategies should involve raising awareness of the long-term negative consequences of vote-selling and locally specific, collective costs of weak governance and corruption. This can be done through facilitated community discussions, locally coordinated public commitments to not sell votes, and voter education using visual and social media, as well as radio and TV publicity campaigns which communicate new expectations of behaviour. This means that work must be done to move the decision to sell a vote away from an immediate and seemingly inconsequential calculus of short-term individual or household gain to one that is linked to wider community views, needs and aspirations – in other words, to change vote-selling from an independent choice to an interdependent one and set new voting norms. For example, in recent state and local elections in Ekiti and Anambra states, there is evidence that some communities were successful in collectively rejecting vote-buying strategies. Such evidence suggests communities can establish interdependent, social expectations that disapprove of and sanction vote-selling.
Strategies should involve raising awareness of the long-term negative consequences of vote-selling and locally specific, collective costs of weak governance and corruption.
There may also be opportunities to weaken the reciprocity component of vote-trading in these contexts, as demonstrated in a large anti-vote-buying intervention in Uganda prior to the 2016 election. Multipronged, grassroots-focused campaigns can be effective in influencing voter behaviour by weakening the reciprocity norm (expectations of reciprocity) that characterizes vote-trading arrangements.
It should be clear, however, that the effectiveness of any intervention depends crucially on the local conditions on the ground. In the case of the Philippines, for example, interventions have only been shown to be effective in local or subnational elections – thus it would appear that the higher the stakes, the less effective they are likely to be. This is particularly relevant for vote markets because no amount of information exposure will curb vote-selling if, for example, individuals hold the belief that selling their votes is the only way to insulate themselves from political violence – and if that belief is, in fact, correct. Thus, effectiveness also hinges on other pressing contextual issues, such as the level of transparency in the electoral process, the exposure and consequences faced by political actors who buy votes, and the degree to which election security and ballot secrecy are guaranteed.