Opinionista Gregory Solik 9 February 2015

The final frontier: An electoral market for buying and selling votes

Advocacy group My Vote Counts has asked the Constitutional Court to declare that parliament has failed to fulfill its constitutional obligation to enact financial disclosure legislation. This is based on the belief that information about the private funding of political parties is reasonably required for the effective exercise of the right to vote. The court is being asked to direct parliament to do so within 18 months. The case will be heard on Tuesday.

This column was first published in GROUNDUP.

The issue of money in politics is, without doubt, one of the most important global political issues of our time. South Africa’s system of secret political party funding presents a particularly acute risk, and constitutes a critical site in the struggle for an open and accountable government.

Despite this, a serious and principled response to the challenges and threats raised by the system of secret political party funding remains elusive. It seems to be treated as an esoteric issue enamoured to policy wonks and well-meaning NGOs. It does not get the public debate it needs. Trade unions, political party platforms and new entrants into the electoral market place remain similarly silent on the issue.

But knowing who funds political parties is crucial for citizens to cast an informed vote, and also to detect and deter political corruption and corporate capture. Knowledge about funders, and having a say about who funds political parties and on what terms, goes to the core of citizenship. Secret funding of political parties on the other hand enables a tiny minority of influential people and corporations to exercise an electoral influence stronger than a single vote.

To make this threat more tangible, more personal, it might help to consider whether you would be prepared to sell your vote at the next local elections in 2016.

When I asked a similar question to some young students from Denmark recently, they answered overwhelmingly in the negative: they would never sell their vote.

I found that shocking. I would.

In fact, I am considering selling my single vote in the upcoming 2016 elections to any willing buyer through an advertisement in a local newspaper. Secretly, I hope a secondary market will emerge where I will consolidate interest in vote-selling-and-buying by acting as an intermediary between those who are eager to make a quick buck, and those wealthy individuals, corporations or foreign governments who are eager to garner greater support for a particular party or candidate.

The business opportunity is very clear: a 25% commission on each vote solicited at a flat fee of R1,000 will be charged, and I will offer pro rata negotiated discounts for bulk purchases of 100 votes or more. Through this market mechanism, and a simple, accessible online trading system, millions of registered voters will be able to exercise their constitutionally protected right to make political choices freely. In doing so, in clear and unambiguous contractual terms, many South African voters will be able to make the equivalent of half a month’s salary, in a day.

Before the scheme is reported to the Independent Election Commission, presumably for a violation of the Electoral Code of Conduct, consider the following propositions.

First, although there may be some things that money can’t buy, these days that doesn’t account for much. According to Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets (2012) prisoners in the United States can purchase a prison-cell upgrade for a meager $90 per night; foreigners can buy the right to immigrate to the United States for $500,000; and anyone can purchase the services of an Indian surrogate mother for $8,000. If it is true that many things can be bought and sold on the free market – including citizenship – why not subject the right to vote to market principles and create a regulated platform for its exchange?

Second, assuming that there is something at stake when civic goods are reduced to economic exchanges, and the right to vote ought to be protected from market forces, on what basis would courts hold that it is indeed against public policy to sell your vote? How does vote-selling and buying compare and contrast to the regulation of other public goods?

Not so long ago, for example, a Financial Times story revealed that a carbon offset trading system on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange would soon be available through its commodities trading platform and electronic settlements system. In effect, this system would enable big corporate polluters to reduce their financial payments for destroying the environment under the new tax regime on carbon dioxide (CO²) – designed to encourage polluters to reduce actual pollution – by mitigating their tax liability. If, as a society we seem comfortable with the idea of regulating the environment – a finite commodity in which we live and quite literally breathe – by allocating and regulating arbitrary financial penalties on the stock exchange, why are we so uncomfortable with the idea of a market-driven vote-buying scheme; local votes being a private commodity that we trade every 5 years?

Finally, if you think the idea of trading votes is shocking, for whatever reason, this practice is already allowed to happen in some constituencies where corporations are actually given the right to vote. Hong Kong, for example, is a city-state which became a colony of the British Empire after the First Opium War. When the People’s Republic of China resumed sovereignty from British control in 1997, it was declared a Special Administrative Region of China. Hong Kong’s unicameral Legislative Council has 70 members, of whom 35 are elected by popular vote in geographical constituencies, and 35 elected from functional constituencies, which consist not only of professionals such as lawyers but corporations based in Hong Kong. This functional constituency is essentially a special interest group involved in the electoral process, which allows businesses and business people to participate in the politics of the Island.

The point here is that the boundaries of the proverbial “common good”, as well as what constitutes private property – human slaves, planets in the solar system, and votes – and the rights attendant on that property, have always been determined by us, the people. And it’s about time we did more to protect the sale of our democracy.

Section 19 of the Constitution – the right to make political choices – is bestowed on citizens only. However, through an unregulated system of private party finance, individuals, powerful local and foreign business entities, as well as foreign governments, are able to buy access and influence, thereby corrupting the integrity of the political system.

The value of the vote and of political agency as a worthwhile human action must be defended and protected. If we do not do so, then the market will quite simply dictate the terms. For example, investors might simply ask, why would one buy your vote when one can buy a political party?

Or worse still, your President. DM

Gregory Solik is co-ordinator of My Vote Counts


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