Vicious circle of vote-buying and the guilt of conscience

Chinua Achebe is better known as a novelist, but one of his short stories “The Voter”, cleverly illustrates the problem that often confronts voters in a typical African electoral cycle.

The main character in the story (published in 1965, but which, sadly, remains familiar) is Rufus Okeke, a party mobiliser for a candidate seeking a parliamentary re-election. Rufus is the indefatigable, trusted right-hand man, who works the ground for his boss, Marcus.

But just before the election, the opposing candidate — a man named Maduka — comes to him stealthily in the night and demands his vote, offering a sum of money for his switching support in the secret ballot. Rufus weighs his options, and figures that his solitary vote would not make a difference in what is going to be a sure win for his man anyway. He takes the money, and takes an oath to cast his ballot for the opposing candidate.

But at the ballot, he has a crisis of conscience, feeling bad about betraying his friend but afraid of the curse that would follow him since he had taking the money.

Then, he quickly has an idea — he tears the paper in two, putting one half in each box, and confirms the action verbally — “I vote for Maduka”. That way — by spoiling his vote — he gets himself off the hook.

This scene is easy for most of us to relate with — if not empathise with. Vote-buying is understood to be a widespread and indispensable form of political mobilisation in the Kenyan political landscape.

Cold, hard cash preferably, and perhaps other trinkets in the form of umbrellas, T-shirts, caps and other merchandise.

By the popular understanding, you can’t win an election in this country without greasing some palms in this way, and it is futile to imagine otherwise.

But the effectiveness of buying votes in order to secure an electoral win is not as clear-cut as that. Why must politicians buy votes in the first place? If voting is secret and voluntary, why wouldn’t people just take the money and stay at home, or take the money “vote with their conscience” for the candidate they truly want? Does that kind of “betrayal” at the ballot box ever happen, and how can politicians prevent it from happening?

Studies from various scholars and thinkers on this issue give some insights on how to understand the phenomenon of vote-buying. In the first place, all elections are a transaction of sorts. Citizens trade their vote for certain outcomes that are important to them — better schools, roads, hospitals, lower taxes, special policies that favour them and so on.

But why is it that in some places, politicians pay for that vote in cash, then proceed to disappear (and/or steal) for five years, and in other places leaders pay for electoral support by delivering those good development outcomes?

Economist Eduardo Porter reckons that the reason is not in the integrity or benevolence of the leaders. It is in the price of the vote — in poor countries, votes are cheap, so the “cost” of support can easily be covered in cash handouts.

Data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics show that three-quarters of households in this country earn less than Sh22,500 a month; the average house rent in this country is about Sh7,000. At this income and rent level, if an aspirant offers you Sh1,000 to vote for him, then that is already more than what you would make from a full day’s work, and already almost 15 per cent of your rent costs.

It is even better if you live in a “swing” vote area, where there is more than one party machine to benefit from. Not only does this give more access to handouts, as each side can buy your vote again and again, but it drives up the size of the handout needed to sustain cooperation.

In other words, each political side is afraid that the other side is busy going round bribing voters, and so ends up being locked in this spiral where each side cannot afford to stop the flow of handouts. But in rich countries (or among higher income households), buying votes in this way would be too expensive. If you pay Sh30,000 in rent in Kenya, an equivalent bribe would cost the same politician Sh4,500.

In the same way, with their basic needs met, people in rich countries would probably put an implicit price tag on “betraying their conscience” at a level far higher than any politician could meet for each private voter. It is “cheaper” to provide public goods as compensation for political support — in the form of good roads, hospitals, schools, security and so on.

Still, this doesn’t explain the Rufus Okeke phenomenon. Why wouldn’t people just take the money and run? Does vote-buying actually guarantee political support on election day, or will the people betray you?

The results are mixed. On one hand, a recent study from Afrobarometer indicates that cash handouts have little to no effect on either turnout or voting patterns on election day. The researchers argue that it could be because of the nature of the multiparty contest that reduces the ultimate effectiveness of vote buying — 52 per cent of voters in the study were offered handouts by more than one party.

Furthermore, electoral rewards tend to be distributed during large political rallies, where anyone — even those who support the opposing party or are not even planning to vote — can benefit. This limits the effectiveness of cash distribution.

Still, other studies suggest that vote buying is successful mostly because it is a signaling mechanism, and not really because of the cold, hard monetary value of the bribe. In Kenya’s political set-up, concrete information about a politician’s performance, behaviour and credibility is difficult for the average voter to obtain. We really don’t know if a certain leader would be a good or bad fit for us, and so we grasp for certain signals to help us make the decision.

Researcher Eric Kramon argues that a pre-election gift can signal to voters the credibility and commitment of the vote-buying politician as well as the politician’s willingness to distribute resources to supporters, creating the expectation that compliant voters might likely receive future benefits.

To put it simply, the receipt of food, supplies, or money from a politician before an election might signal to voters that they will receive future benefits, depending on the electoral success of the gift giver.


Even if voting is secret and voluntary, the bribe is a signal of the politician’s monitoring and punishment capacity — the research examined Kenya’s 2002 election, and found that exposure to vote-buying greatly increases the probability that an individual feels that parties can exert pressure on their vote choice, and that there may be violence or some other sanction if the results don’t go as expected — in Rufus Okeke’s case, he was afraid a curse would follow him since he had taken an oath.

This suggests that exposure to vote-buying increases an individual’s perception of party monitoring and punishment capacity, a perception likely to bring people to the ballot box on election day. That’s why they don’t take the money and stay at home, or take the money and vote for their “true” candidate.

The results found strong evidence that vote-buying is most common in the most electorally competitive or swing areas, but is least effective there because of competing offers from other parties and candidates.

Core supporters, from ‘strongholds’ are less likely to be targeted because there are no competing interests. But here, vote-buying works better as a credibility signalling mechanism.

Take Jubilee’s mega launch last September, possibly the biggest political carnival of this election cycle so far, with fireworks and flares, a flamboyant display of power.

Data from Afrobarometer has shown that voters in many African countries do not necessarily see elections as an opportunity to choose their favourite candidate. They see it more as a confirmation of who they think already has power — which is why if you vote for a fringe candidate in Kenya, you are said to be “wasting” your vote.

Political participation becomes a demonstration of allegiance (which is important in ‘strongholds’ or else one faces various social punishments), rather than a signal of social preferences or to enable citizen voice. It also moves swing votes in your favour since you already seem to be winning.

In this kind of political set-up, projecting power may be all you need to actually give you power. As the Waswahili say, “Mwenye nguvu mpishe.”

- The writer is a writer, journalist and executive editor of Africa data visualiser and explainer site