top of page
  • Writer's pictureRichard Nash

Vote-Buying: Driven More by Social Norms than Economics?

By Richard Nash, IFES Senior Global Advisor on Anti-Corruption, Center on Anti-Corruption and Democratic Trust

Graphic of vote buying and corruption

2024 is a big year for elections. Over 60 countries are holding national-level elections and many more have subnational polls. Nearly half of the global population is going to the polls. While most countries have national level laws that explicitly outlaw vote-buying, in many parts of the world the problem persists and threatens to undermine both the integrity of the elections themselves and also democratic cultures throughout the world. In all countries, as politicians compete for votes and elections become more contested and polarized, the temptation to buy votes to secure an election may well grow. Vote-buying is a particularly pernicious form of corruption. Where it is carried out by the most corrupt politicians, it can entrench systems of autocracy in place as the way a country is run and reflects their interest rather than the will of the people.

The only way to tackle vote-buying is to know what drives it.

This has been the focus of our research at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES). We have been partnering with civil society organizations around the world, such as Gambia Participates, or the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs in Malaysia, as well as undertaking a comprehensive literature review that examined 46 English-language articles on the subject from 1981 to the present.

We have found that what drives the issues is not necessarily what you think.

Subscribe here to the Corruption in Fragile State Blog. We have a three-week publishing cycle — to keep you informed without cluttering your inbox.

Social norms seem to surpass economic factors as drivers in vote-buying

Two key findings challenge common assumptions:

Vote-buying is not simply a developing country problem: A 2021 study from the U.S. drawing on nationally representative survey data, showed that despite traditional portrayals of the U.S. as the embodiment of a democratic ‘civic culture,’ a substantial share of Americans express readiness to sell their votes for cash: 12% of respondents would do so for just $25, as would nearly 20% for $100.

It’s not the economy: Socio-economic and demographic factors have long been considered a driving force behind vote-buying. This analysis suggests that vote-buying is intrinsically linked with lower levels of economic development and is a common feature of politics in countries that are relatively poor and have low rates of literacy. The argument here is that poorer voters, particularly those with low levels of education, are more vulnerable to vote-buying as they tend to favor immediate gains over uncertain future benefits from a government. However, this argument fails to explain why clientelist networks remain influential in wealthier and highly educated nations such as Japan, Belgium, Austria, and Italy.

These realities prompted us to look more deeply into the role of social norms in vote-buying.

The social norm of ‘reciprocity’ is particularly linked to vote-buying: In fact, our ongoing research and deeper excavations have clearly demonstrated that one of the most powerful factors that underpins the effectiveness of vote-buying is the social norm of ‘reciprocity’ – a recurrent theme across countries and which can be directly linked to vote-buying. Very simply, reciprocity is the social standard that people who help others will receive equivalent benefits from them in return.

How does the social norm of ‘reciprocity’ play out in vote-buying?

The need to understand both the existence of the social norm, and how it manifests within a given society is important for two reasons. First, to make sure that efforts to address vote-buying are actually effective. In some jurisdictions such as in the Pacific, customary norms on ‘treating’ (i.e. the offering of small gifts) may sometimes be mis-interpreted as some form of vote-buying. And vice versa: those seeking to buy votes may hide behind these traditional customs to cover up their illegal acts. This has caused uncertainty and problems in these jurisdictions regarding how to enforce the law. Second, understanding these norms can help to avoid unintended consequences. For example, our research found that in the Philippines when voters were provided with spending plans for public funding in their area to aid them in analyzing their policies, mayoral incumbents responded by increasing their vote-buying efforts. 

But the mere existence of the norm is insufficient to explain how vote-buying can become so prevalent.

"One of the most powerful factors that underpins the effectiveness of vote-buying is the social norm of ‘reciprocity’"

Our literature review highlighted the important role that brokers play in leveraging dense social networks and sophisticated targeting strategies to identify who may be susceptible to buying/selling their vote. Research across south-east Asia suggests brokers tend to target individuals who exhibit:

  • Intrinsic reciprocity, which is a person’s willingness to sacrifice their own material well-being to increase the payoffs of someone who has been kind to them or to decrease the payoffs of someone who has been unkind to them. For example, in Paraguay, political figures engage esteemed local leaders from each community. Their role is to connect with the electorate, advocate for the politicians they represent, and provide financial assistance or other forms of support. This is done with the expectation of securing a commitment for their vote. A study that surveyed these middle men demonstrated a 44% increase in the likelihood that they could buy the votes of those with strong feelings of intrinsic reciprocity.

  • Instrumental reciprocity, which is motivated by forward-looking self-interest. Here, people respond to those with whom they have ongoing relationships, anticipating that reciprocity will generate more benefits in future interactions. In instances of vote-buying, the activation of instrumental reciprocity necessitates that voters perceive a heightened risk of repercussions if they don’t reciprocate. This underscores the importance of the brokers’ perceived capacity to oversee and ensure compliance with the agreed exchange.

These are just some examples of the social norm of ‘reciprocity’ in action, and how effective it can be. Our research demonstrates the nuances in how vote-buying works, the importance of brokers and deep networks, and the need to move beyond a simplistic understanding of it as a single economic transaction.

So, what are the implications for programming?

It is clear that efforts to ensure the integrity of elections need to integrate a social norm understanding into their activities. This would include:

  • Identifying, understanding and addressing the role and influence of brokers within communities and their linkages to candidates and political parties;

  • Given how deep many social norms are and how long they can take to shift, working to address social norms throughout the electoral cycle rather than in the short campaign season is necessary. This may also include working with large membership-based organizations such as trade unions, churches, social clubs – given their role in some contexts of creating the social networks and norms that brokers can exploit; and

  • Actively integrating an understanding of social norms and the norm of reciprocity into general civic education programming addressing vote-buying and in particular how the norm of reciprocity drives vote-buying in the country context.


With support for how democracy is working trending downwards globally—particularly among young people—the pernicious and corrosive effect that vote-buying has on voter apathy and individuals’ support for democracy should not be underestimated. Taking a wider view of vote-buying and understanding the myriad ways in which it can occur and designing effective systems of integrity to counter them will be a critical part in strengthening democratic regimes.


Richard Nash

Richard is IFES Senior Global Advisor on Anti-Corruption, where he also leads the Center on Anti-Corruption and Democratic Trust. Richard has spent nearly 20 years working on issues of good governance, anti-corruption and rule of law with the likes of the World Bank, DFID and WWF across multiple countries. His work has emphasized mainstreaming these approaches across sectors and a particular focus on integrating political economy aspects to reform approaches.


bottom of page