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It's often remarked that voting with dollars — not literally, but through spending and the influence that comes with control of capital — is more ultimately influential than actual voting in a democracy.

What if a society were to set up its electoral system to counteract that, where the poorest people's votes counted for more? In fact, to simplify things, what if only if people in the poorest class were allowed to vote? Presumably, people would select policies that are to their own benefit, but also include the possibility of rising out of the voting class. Or, would they? Imagine a country roughly like America today but with this system in place. Would it be significantly different? Or, imagine this system put into place in the 1890s as a result of a vastly more influential populist movement — how would it play out?

Presume that directly buying votes is illegal and effectively enforced, as well as equivalent coercion. And since it's kind of boring if the equivalent of tax evasion makes the whole thing moot, let's take for granted some effective equation which considers income and capital and takes into account (uh, pun might be intended) all possible dodges.

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Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Monica Cellio Jan 15 at 3:23
If votes can be bought by convincing the poor masses how to vote, then nothing would change at all. – fredsbend Jan 17 at 2:09

12 Answers 12

Likely nothing would be different at all. Today, the poor substantially outweigh the rich, as such, the ultra-rich directly control less than 0.1% of the vote. The political power that the rich wield is due to the power they wield over the poor, mostly via control of education, the media, and popular culture. In America, at least, almost 15% of people live below the 'official' poverty line, which is about $22,000. (

The middle class is alarmingly small. Combined household income above 100K already puts a person in the 79th percentile. Almost 50% of American households bring in less than 50K per year.

Basically, the 'poor' already control the vote. The rich, however, control (or at least educate, entertain, and influence) the poor.

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Exactly. Also, the poor can vote, but it will mostly be the rich who'll run. And if things get too bad for the rich, they can just move, draining the country of most of its capital. – Konerak Jan 13 at 7:27
@Konerak The rich are the only ones that run. There's kind of a $50,000 filing fee involved...... – Draco18s Jan 13 at 20:45
@Draco18s That filing fee is oddly specific, whereas both question and answer talk very generally. There is often a fee or deposit involved in standing for election, but not always, and not always a very high one. e.g. in the UK, you can stand as an MP by paying a £500 deposit, which is refunded if you win at least 5% of the votes. Much more important is the cost of campaigning - i.e. influencing people to vote for you, which is basically what this answer is talking about. – IMSoP Jan 14 at 14:39
@Draco18s But what I'm saying is that in many elections you don't have to be rich to play. You clearly have a particular election in mind which has such a high fee, but haven't even stated what it is, so the point seems a bit out of place on a discussion about hypothetical elections in an imaginary state. – IMSoP Jan 14 at 15:09
I'm feeling a little bad about my answer because (while I believe it to be true) it doesn't seem to help mattdm much with his world-building. Perhaps it's worth exploring why the voting majority of 'poor' people aren't already voting changes to their own advantage, such as free health care or universal basic wage. Part of it, I think, is people's infatuation with riches and success, and the perception of the wealthy and successful as being more-deserving of that wealth and success, compared with others, and the cognitive bias against the poor that even (or especially) the poor seem to have. – Lonboder Jan 14 at 18:02

If your theoretical society is otherwise identical to ours, the results would be catastrophic.

A few reasons to back my statement:

  • Poor people are usually lesser educated, therefore more vulnerable with the means of populism and propaganda. It means most likely the worst candidate will win.
  • Poor people are easier to buy. Anyone who would want to win an election would just had to hand out a few dollars to those who live in poverty.
  • Poor people are usually lesser informed. Because the lack of sophisticated media and the long and countless work hours, poor people has a less extended horizon. They could elect terrible people not knowing about the stuff they are guilty in.
  • Since only poor people can vote, but because of the reasons listed above most likely the rich are being voted for, the first set of politicians would use their power to deprive anyone else of publicity to keep their power.
  • If poor people would be elected they would soon become rich and lose their contact with reality.
  • Poor people are more vulnerable to threats... if the factory owner - who himself can't vote - mentions there will be a staff reduction if XY wins, how many workers of that factory will vote on XY?


Rereading my answer made me feel I has to state I'm neither a fascist, nor a sociodarwinist. I don't think there are no smart but poor people, but I think quality education cost a lot, and in many cases people in poverty can't even support their children to go through free education, so they will not have well-payed jobs, so most of the next generation remains poor and undereducated.

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@mattdm And then they are simply rich people and all the above applies to them. No change in the social structure. – mg30rg Jan 12 at 17:30
Poor people being undereducated and underinformed is a problem, but in this scenario, it might not continue to be. If a politician would be willing to provide quality education as part of his "make the voting-class love me" campaign, that problem wouldn't last long. Over time, this high school went from 25% graduation rate to almost 100% when a millionaire offered free college to graduates, poor people know that education is valuable and could use their voting power to get it. Or maybe I'm just naive – Shek Jan 12 at 20:22
That looks like the same thing as I've seen described under the signs of the coming Plutarchy. If the poor outnumber the rich by orders of magnitude, than the rich votes don't really matter and it's the same thing. – JDługosz Jan 12 at 22:23
@v.oddou I don't think so. I live in a country where unemployment rates are quite high and the average wage is 2€ an hour and I actually see what I'm talking about here. People who own industry and media rule the country because most of the voters have no time/energy/opportunity to stand up for themselves. Total apathy and defetism rules our country. – mg30rg Jan 13 at 7:53
From South Africa. You may all remember the optimism with which it 22 years ago changed regime, giving a vast majority of very poor (and uneducated) people the vote. Initially things did improve somewhat, due to new foreign investments and private sector enthusiasm. But, all of @mg30rg 's points above have come true over the years. Each successive government was worse than the one before it. Election promises keep getting made (education, housing, employment, ...) but not fulfilled (keeping poor poor). In 2016, the situation looks more dire than ever, currency in a nosedive against $, €. – fr13d Jan 16 at 10:06

...people would select policies that are to their own benefit...

Nailed it.

If this system were applied to modern America, the low-income voters would likely be motivated to support policy that would provide for all their needs and allow them to live a comfortable life without actually being taken out of the "voting class." Think government-provided housing, food, clothing, transportation, luxuries, etc. for everyone who makes less than the "voting cut-off salary," whatever that may be. Anything to improve the lives of the "voting class" without actually restricting their ability to vote and continue to influence policy.

Best-case scenario, we'd end up with something akin to "Basic Income," where the government automatically gives all citizens enough money to live off of for simply existing, (hopefully) encouraging and enabling them to follow their passions and dreams rather than chase the almighty dollar. Worst-case scenario, we might see a situation in which the country isn't able to support the economic cost of providing for the "voting class" in the ways it expects and votes for, eventually bankrupting the government.

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I think you expect too much from simple voters. They would be voters, not in power, so they could only choose from candidates having enough money to buy screentime. – mg30rg Jan 12 at 17:32
I'd expect the most appealing/likely candidates would be the ones who promised the "voting class" free housing, food, etc. Any politician who played that kind of game would hopefully know that appealing to the mob is a risky strategy; the moment you're even perceived as not making good on your promises, the mob is likely to oust you and move on to the next candidate who will. A successful politician in this instance would be the one who's positive impact on the "voting class" would be strongly, consistently, and immediately felt. – Shek Jan 12 at 17:41
Are you aware that you are describing fascism here? – mg30rg Jan 12 at 17:52
Sure. Or the rise of communism in a few instances. Or any other political system/change that was brought on by a charismatic leader circumnavigating the existing power structure and gaining power by appealing directly to the "mob." Plenty of examples of this going poorly in the past, I agree – Shek Jan 12 at 17:56
@mg30rg I dont think that expects too much from simple voters. Consider the platforms of some of the current US presidential candidates. Some are all but selling the vision Shek mentions, and we don't even have the inverse wealth voting scheme! If they can buy their time now, is it not reasonable to presume they could find ways to get their message out in such an alternate system? – Cort Ammon Jan 12 at 18:32

Well, mostly likely that those that became rich enough to not vote would leave for another country that didn't take away their opinion.

If only the poor could vote, then they would tend to vote for things that help them out. Any reasonably advanced country actually tries to do this anyway, help those down trodden. But if only the poorest could vote, likely the communist/socialist hell that some are claiming will happen if certain people get into power (here in the US) would happen. They would tax the rich down. This would help push them out of the country.

The other way could be that the rich all try running for public offices to have a more direct hand in what gets put into law, and they and their friends give themselves loop holes, kind of like today...

Money always talks. Disenfranchising one group to benefit another never really works, it just puts those who can't vote into the power of those who can. What you really need is a way to level out the influence of the money behind those votes.

This might be by forcing ALL political money to go through some kind of filter, that tracks all political funds. As well as actual tracking of individual wealth of every politician. How much they are worth at the beginning of the year/term and how much they are worth at the end, and they have to show WHERE the difference came from. But since so many are getting away with accepting bribes in one form or another, why should they vote in such a law?

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This ultimately depends on:

  • The importance of voting. The right to vote is not terribly important for an individual in a modern, highly-developed nation-state. How much would an individual be personally willing to give up in material well-being for Red to be in charge for another four years, as opposed to Blue?
  • The rate at which voting power decreases with wealth. For a logarithmic relationship, a millionaire has 1/6th the vote of a pauper, and twice the vote of a trillionaire. A linear relationship would have considerably different effects.

That said, some effects might be:

  • Switch to corporate ownership of assets Instead of people buying their own house, they would simply register a corporation to purchase the house. The corporation doesn't lose any voting privileges, so it's no loss to it.
  • Move to consumption and income over saving. You say wealth is tied to reduced voting power, but not spending power. Instead of saving for retirement (where your nest egg reduces your voting privileges), you consume now.
  • Capital flight People would put their wealth in vessels out of the purview of the wealth test. You say that the policy is well-enforced, but you didn't say it was well-defined -- which is, of course, how systems are gamed.
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"Switch to corporate ownership of assets" -- this cuts directly to the problem of accurately assessing individual wealth. If the corporation owns the house, then the corporation "should" be worth about as much as the house is. And if I own that corporation, then my wealth "should" be the same as if I just owned the house directly. If I don't own the corporation, then who controls my house? But the difference between "should" and "legally is, for the purposes of assessing individual wealth" is a gap into which lawyers and accountants will gleefully drive themselves. – Steve Jessop Jan 13 at 12:49
... so for example, assessing the value of being the beneficiary of a trust that gives me use of the house without me actually owning either the house or the trust, is in practice probably more effort than you'd want voter registration officials to have to go to. – Steve Jessop Jan 13 at 12:54
Yes, the likelihood of these effects depend heavily on the codification of the law. You're right that it wouldn't take too much thought to close some loopholes -- my answer was about initial gaming. There are potentially interesting dynamics here. – Hugh Jan 13 at 22:21

Via La revolution ... welcome to the oligarchy!

So only the poor can vote and the become very powerful, by creating a permanent ruling class.
They pass a law that only people who can currently vote and their decedents can vote, a grandfather clause. Then they can give themselves power, wealth, and benefits, think the party elite in Soviet Russia.

Edit: It would have to be a constitutional amendment in the US to prevent the supreme court from striking it down. It would still be possible with a majority of the population.

This holds true for restricting voting to any minority(subgroup) of the county's population.

By restricting voting rights to any minority group you change a democracy to an oligarchy.

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An oligarchy typically revolves around a small group of people. The poor don't constitute nearly as small a group for something like this to happen. – HDE 226868 Jan 13 at 0:04
@HDE226868 Bt that doesn't matter, because within a generation or less, they will stratify and create a new elite which reflects the patterns of behavior of the old elite, except to their own benefit. Source: I live in South Africa :) – Wolfie Inu Jan 13 at 6:38
@HDE226868 it is true Oligarchy is usually used for a ruling group around 100 people or smaller. What do you call a nation were only 1/2 or 1/10 of the population can vote? Think the US before women's suffrage, or South Africa under apartheid. It has many of the same qualities as a traditional oligarchy but what do you call it? – sdrawkcabdear Jan 13 at 22:02
What do you call it? It's just a system without universal suffrage. There's nothing weird about it. And it's not like we have universal suffrage anyway - children probably can't vote in your country either. The only truly universal voting you do is with your wallet :P At least it would be, if that wasn't restricted by the government as well - kids can't buy a lot of stuff either. Not to mention a lot of the other bans that restrict your voting power... Oh well, – Luaan Jan 14 at 14:19

I think the way to look at what will happen is to consider the incentives on an individual voter. Call him Fred. Like most people Fred votes according to his individual interest. He votes for a party that will give him more money. Many others vote likewise and that party wins. So Fred gets his money, rises above the threshold, and ceases to be a voter. He's definitely gained on the deal; getting richer at the cost of the loss of a mostly symbolic privilege only used occasionally and which made an infinitesimal difference to his circumstances or, indeed, to the result of the election.

Therefore let us assume most people act in the same way as Fred did. Soon there aren't that many people still left in the voting class. Assuming as per the question that the system is administered without significant corruption, they cannot be bribed because any substantial bribe would self-defeatingly lift them out of the category of voters. (A factor that would help to keep the system honest would be that any increase in the wealth of a poor person is difficult to hide. Furthermore there are by now not very many electors left, so they can all be kept under scrutiny.)

So the question becomes, what sort of people voluntarily stay in the voter class? Two groups, those who cannot rise out of it - sad cases unlikely to exercise their right to vote - and those who choose not to. The second group splits into two sub-groups: persons for whom civic duty outweighs the desire for material wealth and persons for whom civic duty outweighs the desire for material wealth and whose politics I don't like, i.e. mad fanatics.

If it persisted, this system might result in some sort of "Rule of the Saints". Three of the many historical examples of rule by an austere and committed minority are (in increasing order of their rule's severity) Edinburgh under the Covenanters, Khomeini's Iran, and the Khmer Rouge. But it tends not to persist.

There is an alternative scenario. Going back to Fred, he votes for the party that promises him more money. As in the earlier version, that party gets in, but this time the party bosses are smarter and Fred is … not so smart. They arrange things so that Fred and people like him always think they are going to soon be given enough money to rise out of the voting class but somehow, for excellent reasons, it never seems to actually happen. Fred and his neighbours get benefits and promises just big enough to keep their hopes up, and to dissuade them, perhaps, from seeking to gain wealth by other than political means. They remain in a state of poverty and dependency comforted by the flattery of politicians when election time comes round. I shall refrain from citing real life examples of this system.

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Like most people Fred votes according to his individual interest. He votes for a party that will give him more money.” That's not true, as evidenced by the report that the county with the highest food stamp usage votes republican, and the typical person has no idea that they elected people who cut their benefits! Your premise presumes transparency and accuracy. Other answers postulate propaganda and influence, which is the exact opposite. People will vote for what they have been told is the best candidate, and people will resonate with "like me" (e.g. religion) not actual issues. – JDługosz Jan 12 at 22:38
"Soon there aren't that many people still left in the voting class." This can be directly rephrased as "soon, there aren't many people left in poverty". That does not seem like a particularly bad outcome. Is that actually what you mean? – mattdm Jan 13 at 4:11
@mattdm, yes. And as a consequence, those left in poverty are a very different sort of people from the norm. On the other hand, the voting class would be replenished by people falling back into poverty which might reduce the proportion of "saints" in the voting class. – Lostinfrance Jan 13 at 8:06
It also depends how you define "poor". If it's by definition the poorest 25%, then you assure that it will never be just a handful of electors. Unfortunately, that means the definition of "poor" which is already a political punching-bag, becomes a matter of acute constitutional importance. – Steve Jessop Jan 13 at 12:59
@SteveJessop, good point. Who constitutes "the poorest" could be calculated in many different ways - by percentage of mean income, or by median income, by a certain percentage of the electorate, by an absolute number of the electorate (e.g. the poorest million voters), etc., etc. The one thing we can be sure of is that people would game the system however it worked. – Lostinfrance Jan 13 at 13:13

This would give the voters a great deal of incentive to understate their wealth. Perhaps they vote in something where government assistance does not count. This is actually how poverty is usually measured in the USA now, so it's not so far fetched. So the new rich would be the poor, who only receive government benefits. Their government benefits might be mansions, but they're government mansions so they don't count in wealth.

Of course, with the poor running things that way, the middle class would become poorer and poorer, eventually joining the voting class. But no one could leave the voting class. So it would swell and swell. Eventually they wouldn't have enough workers. They'd have to draft workers from the voting class. They'd come up with some snappy slogan, like "From each according to ability, to each according to need!"

That didn't seem to work out so well in the Soviet Union.

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If votes count in exact inverse proportion to each voter's wealth, the power will end up with a small elite who can afford good enough accountants to make their legal worth on election day come out as $0.01.

The vote of a typical working loser who needs to hold enough cash to pay rent and buy groceries won't be worth diddly, and they might as well not bother.

Bonus points if the typical working losers think they're in power anyway, because the exact math of weighing votes at each polling place is not made public (each voter's exact wealth is protected by privacy after all, right?)

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I've always dreamed of exactly the opposite system: your vote is proportional to your contribution to the government (i.e. the tax you paid minus the benefits you received since the last election).

Granted that this is contrary to current opinion, but it has merits:

  1. It is fair. In the true meaning of the word.
  2. Many of the successful democracies of the past implicitly adopted this system.
  3. We know it works because this is how we've been running companies for centuries (i.e. shares) and they clearly out competes the government.
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Welcome to World Builder! This is a good answer but it would be better if you could expand it some by providing some references for it. – Jim2B Jan 15 at 10:40

This would put politicians in an interesting position.

On the one hand, they would have to cater to the poor. But on the other hand, when they get elected, they need to make sure that their voters stay poor so they can vote them again, while also keeping them happy so they want to vote them again.

The result would be that politicians would avoid the question of social inequality as much as they can. They would instead try to mobilize the voters with other topics which are highly emotional but have little impact on social standing. Party lines would likely follow ideologies and philosophies and less income classes. I could imagine that fundamentalist Christian parties could do quite well in this system because of the Christian idea of idealizing poverty.

An interesting strategy to stay in power might be to create policies which make the voters of the governing party worse off economically so their voting power increases.

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The government would collapse.

Why? It would collapse either by becoming a tyranny or by losing all power. Law compliance must be largely voluntary for a government to work. If those who have the most to lose were least represented, they would have the least incentive to be in compliance.

Attempting compliance through large-scale enforcement efforts would result in a tyranny.

Allowing those with the most wealth to side-step the law would lead to the government getting charged absurd amounts of money even for the basic services because those running those services would be viewing the government as external predatory forces (which must be resisted). They would thus charge as much as possible because price is the cost of getting service (not to be confused with the cost of providing service). At the same time those with the most money would be doing everything possible to resist using that money to support functioning of the government (ie, looking for ways out of paying taxes).

The central theme of Aristotle's "Politics" is that the government must not disenfranchise any of the socio-economic classes from power. And that the power must be proportional to the amount of influence. Aristotle had a lot of examples to draw on because he lived in the times of Greek city-states. And each city-state functioned autonomously (more or less). So he was able to observe a lot of patterns on which to draw his conclusions.

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