Just an interesting idea for a government, not really sure if it's a good idea, but still interested in the results of one existing.

The idea is for your traditional representative democracy, or perhaps a delegative democracy. However, a user is not limited to a single vote, instead being given a means to earn extra votes, or to lose voting power, by doing things for the government. The obvious example would be by buying more votes, but is not limited to it.

First, in this system a vote is divisible. For sake of addressing things lets say that each person gets 100 'vote units' per vote by default to start with. Anyone can vote with these.

However, the US congress says that extravagant financial expenditures count as free speech, so the rich can try to pay to encourage a given vote with advertisements and the like today. However, the funny thing is that if one rich person pays 50,000 for a pro-choice ad and another rich person pays 50,000 for a pro-life the two ads sort of 'counteract' each other, in theory one ad sways as many people to its cause as the other resulting in no net difference in voter turn out, but with 100,000 dollar worth of ads wasted. So what if, instead of the expensive advertisement wars a government decided to cut out the middle man and instead allowed each person to give the government 50,000 to 'buy' extra votes. Their votes would counteract each other, but at least the government is 100,000 richer which it can spend to fund some program to better its citizens...

My theoretical government tries to address these issues to make 'buying votes' more efficient but also theoretically no stronger or weaker. They have very tightly controlled advertisements for campaigns, limiting rich in the way they can pay for political ads and providing basic funding to political campaigns to try to ensure that major campaigns worked with the same, limited, funding for campaigning.

However, they allowed those who previously would have donated money to campaign finances to cut out the middle man by directly buying extra votes for themselves. To limit one absurdly rich person buying votes they did this on a scaling system such that:

  1. The cost for each 'vote' was partially scaled off of one's tax returns. The rich pay slightly more to buy a vote than the poor. However, the rich are still paying a much smaller percentage of their net income, so individual rich still have more buying power. However,
  2. The cost of votes purchased increases with each vote purchased in a roughly exponential fashion. So the first vote for a given voter costs X dollars, the next costs 1.1*x, the next cost 1.21*x and next costs 1.331* x etc. Keep in mind voters start with 100 votes, so to buy 100 votes, to double your basic voting power, you would need to pay ..actually an absurdly high amount if one used the simply 1.1 increase ratio, but the actual voting algorithm would likely be a more complex polynomial rather than a simple exponent. The point being that it grows prohibitively expensive even for the rich to continue buying votes after awhile due to the exponential increase in price
  3. Strict rules are in place to prevent giving someone money to buy votes for you (at a lower cost than you would buy votes), for now just assume that this sort of voter fraud is well enough regulated to not have a significant affect on elections.

The idea is that this system does allow the rich to buy votes with their money, but is designed to tightly regulate just how much they can buy votes, ideally lowering their overall impact compared to funding campaigns by putting an effective cap on their vote buying power due to the exponential increase of votes. In addition it allows the government to take all this vote buying money in as a small alternate source of income. Rather than wasting money having two sides bickering with increasingly expensive attack ads the government benefits from this form of vote buying.

The argument for allowing this sort of vote buying being that those that help support the government more have earned a right to be heard by the government due to their support. Of course the government can be supported in ways other than financially...

Thus the next logical step would be to have non-fiscal government support be rewarded with votes as well. The government sets up a system where any 'civic duty' can earn someone 'civic credits' that can be cashed in for votes. For instance, in addition to the usual financial rewards for civic duties one may receive 1 civic credit for jury duty. Anyone whose property is seized for eminent domain may receive some credits depending on the size/expense of property. People working for certain recognized charitable non-profits may earn credits per hours worked. Foster parents earn credits for fostering children. Perhaps much like how tax refunds are attached to various activities to encourage behaviors vote incentives will be attached. Charitable donations of money to nonprofits earn votes at 1/2 the rate that direct buying of a vote would earn etc. The government may come up with other activities they want to encourage and offer similar 'civic credits' for those who perform these credits, maybe to help protect the environment congress passes a law that rewards some credits to anyone that purchases a vehicle with better than X MPG fuel efficiency (with assorted rules to prevent rich from buying a dozen efficient cars for credits) The point being that the government sets up ways to reward citizens for other 'civic duties' with extra points.

These non-fiscal votes work similarly to the manner for purchased votes.

  1. 'vote credits' are earned for each non-fiscal 'civic duty' like the ones listed above. These credits can be traded in for votes but suffer similar diminishing returns that buying votes does, the more votes you already earned the more credits it costs to buy the next vote. However, I suspect credits won't suffer from quite as high a diminishing return as bought votes, a larger linear value and smaller exponential value on the cost polynomial means that while non-fiscal credits will eventually grow prohibitively expensive one can buy more of them first and the cost of each credit compared to the previous isn't as drastic.
  2. Anyone can store their credits to have them carry over into the next year/voting round. however, a small percentage, say 10%, of stored credits is lost when carried over to the next year, meaning trying to store credits for years to have enough to sway a key vote is not an option.
  3. The total cost of a new vote would actually consider the total number of votes earned from both purchase and civic credits. Buying lots of votes from civic credits will make purchasing votes more expensive and vice versa. However, it would scale such that the first few votes earned with each method are generally cheap, even if many votes are earned with the other method.

Finally, there are a few ways that votes can be lost, by doing things that are considered counter to the welfare of the nation, but only a small subset of things lead to lost votes. Being found guilty of a felony may be charged a one time loss of votes depending on the severity of the felony, as could being in jail (which doesn't mean all votes are lost, and would only last as long as one is actually in jail). Collecting welfare or other government assistance does not result in a loss of votes. Voter fraud of any type will result in the loss of all votes. Perhaps a few other "anti civic activities" are deemed punishable by loss of votes, but I can't think of any right now, generally penalizing someone's votes is rare is saved for extreme situations.

My question is how would this government function, what are its limits or benefits, and what potential problems will the government have to be aware of to serve as a fair representation. Most relevantly, could this be done in a way that does not give the rich too disproportionate a control over votes (rich always buy votes, even today, I'm more wondering if this can be done in such a way that it's not much worse than current day).

Would the extra financial income and 'civic duties' done to earn votes be enough to have any real positive effect on government and its citizens?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ The direct competition for this is a PAC. PACs turn money into public awareness, which is basically a more civilized version of buying votes. Do you think it would be worth it for a rich person to buy votes, rather than relying on a PAC to sway others into spending their votes? $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Nov 3, 2015 at 21:45
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I am a little concerned with the complexity. Butterfly ballots are considered "too complicated for voters" Even if we get over the orders of magnitude increase in complexity, balancing this would be quite a feat! $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Nov 3, 2015 at 21:46
  • $\begingroup$ If people aren't advertising their perspective on an issue, would that lead to an even less informed debate? The premise that ads == waste might need reviewing. $\endgroup$
    – NPSF3000
    Commented Nov 3, 2015 at 22:10
  • $\begingroup$ I get where you're going here, but I think any static system is open to eventual abuse. The details of direct buying vs PACs doesn't really matter. Once the rich buy votes, they will leverage the power they have from their elected officials to open up cracks/exploits in the system that benefit themselves and future vote purchases. Usually when I imagine future political systems that are corruption resistant, I include some sort of exclusionary principal (you can't benefit from a law you passed), or time limits - things of that nature. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 3, 2015 at 22:10
  • $\begingroup$ @CortAmmon The idea would be to simultaniously lock down PACs to make them less viable, so buying votes directly is more efficent. Even if a PAC existed the rich may choose to buy a few votes, till they became more expensive. As to complexity, it sounds complex in theory, but so is goverment. I feel like anyone who grew up with this and learned it in goverment class would be able to understand it pretty easily compared to the stuff we already do. Only the rich need to understand the buying votes part. For everyone else "you get credits for doing civic things, spend for votes" isn't to odd $\endgroup$
    – dsollen
    Commented Nov 3, 2015 at 22:12

7 Answers 7


Buying votes was considered in an essay by Robert A Heinlein, and he felt that a straight cash for votes system would be overall good, with many potential negative cancelling each other out.

  1. If you felt so compelled about an issue that you would pay to vote for it, then you would probably get involved in the political process and be more of an informed voter (people make more careful considerations when it is their own money on the line).

  2. When you have "skin in the game" then your vote really does count. This will energize many more people to come out and vote, form vote buying cooperatives to fight deep pocket organizations like the Tides Foundation, Avvaz and so on.

  3. Rich people would be expending their resources for buying votes (which they do now). By spending money on purchasing ballots, they have reduced the resources they have to invest in and compete in the market economy. (This thesis overlooks the effects of crony capitalism, although if enough cronies are competing to buy the election, then many of them will be exhausted and there will be fewer buying ballots in the next election).

  4. Taxes and spending might be lower if the government was financed directly through purchase of votes.

People would literally feel ownership in the government, and most certainly look to protect their investment, and check carefully to see that it is doing the things they bought and paid for. This might make politicians much more careful with their campaign promises, as breaking a promise will certainly rest in some well directed fury at the politician and political class who "are not staying bought", and now people will be much more inclined to get out and do something about this.


Censorship and Ignorance

Under a pay-for-vote system any political change can be effected purely through monetary means.

As such it becomes obvious that stakeholders will seek to increase benefit to them, even at the cost to others, though simply buying votes.

This is similar to today. However there is one major difference:

Cost Minimisation.

Today only voters can vote, and beyond lobbying politicians already in power the only way to effect change is to get people to vote for it. However under a 'pay for vote' system you can simply exchange cash for votes. In this situation people suddenly become a burden and cost to stakeholders — after all why convince someone to support your interests when you can simply buy the votes without them?

As such stakeholders will seek to minimise public knowledge and interest in policies and government, to minimise those who would vote against them, thereby reducing the cost of buying policies.

Censorship, Ignorance, False Information would seem to be tools that would be fit for this environment. After all, wouldn't one of the first 'purchases' of policy be the policies that enable you to buy other policies cheaply?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ With a 10% increase in cost for each subsequent vote it will quickly become cost ineffective to buy votes. What you would see is awareness campaign marketed specifically at the people who can afford to buy votes. Agree that the goal of would quickly become to reduce the obstacles in your path to buying votes. $\endgroup$
    – Taemyr
    Commented Nov 6, 2015 at 11:57
  • $\begingroup$ @Taemyr I consider the '10% increase' per vote a largely irrelevant number - it's not been considered well enough to use ever for hypothetical scenarios as the question itself admits - but the actual voting algorithm would likely be a more complex polynomial rather than a simple exponent. Still censorship is still your primary goal, as preventing an opponent from buying 1 \$1 vote could save you from having to buy 1 \$15 vote. $\endgroup$
    – NPSF3000
    Commented Nov 6, 2015 at 12:08
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ It's not irrelevant. Because it gets so huge very quickly. Doubeling the amount of cash you pour in only gives you 7 more votes. So for a single voter to get as many votes as two voters that don't spend any cash he would need to spend about 16000 times the cost of the first vote. To match three voters he would need to spend 13000000 times the cost of the first vote. For any significant number of votes it would almost certainly be more effecient to spend that money on marketing to get people to vote the way you want. OP states that he wants that rapid cost growth. $\endgroup$
    – Taemyr
    Commented Nov 6, 2015 at 12:18
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Taemyr it's irrelevant for the exact reasons you state. I answer the intent of the question, rather than one poorly picked example number/formula that expresses an idea but in my opinion contradicts the rest of the post. As the post hints, the actual formula given is so ineffective it would be hard to distinguish from modern voting. $\endgroup$
    – NPSF3000
    Commented Nov 6, 2015 at 12:41
  • $\begingroup$ @Taemyr If smart, you don't buy votes directly, you buy people to spend the money on your behalf. Instead of paying twice once, you pay 1.5 times on two inputs and get two times 4, so 8 votes with the same input instead of only 7. If you can hire 10 people, your investment is even lower for more output. The smart capitalist does not buy from the source but the retailer. In fact, just paying the people to vote the way you want will be most cost effective. $\endgroup$
    – Trish
    Commented May 13, 2022 at 6:53

Economists have the notion of "rent seeking" which is where you try to get the government to pass a law that says you get lots of money.

The richest ten percent of the US population control close to 75% of the wealth. What if they all get together and propose a law that says: "We, the richest ten percent, get everybody else's money and property and now they're our slaves. Also we all get refunded the money we spent to buy votes for this bill."?

The thing about the current system is, yes, it's sometimes possible to buy votes through advertising, but the thing you're advertising has to be at least a little bit sane. I don't think any amount of advertising could persuade people to vote for "give all property to the richest 10%, everyone else is slaves".

-- And of course, in practice, nobody would be quite that blatant. But they could buy themselves a very steep tax cut.

  • $\begingroup$ Keep in mind that cost of votes goes up exponentially. meaning that the richest 10% will actually be limited in their ability to buy votes by the exponentially increasing cost. They may be able to buy the equivalent of another 2 voters or a little more, if they are willing to pay a very high price for the later votes, but 'commoners' would still get more votes, not even counting the votes that non-rich can get through 'civic duties', which give the common man more votes always and the ability to earn more when they feel strongly about a topic. $\endgroup$
    – dsollen
    Commented Nov 6, 2015 at 16:40

Keep in mind that "the rich" or at least "reasonably well-off" are usually much better able to afford a new and clean car, to take a day off for jury duty, etc. You might consider that there have been political systems where votes depended on income or class.

In hindsight, that's seen as an intermediary step while the aristocracy/oligarchy gave way to a proper democracy. And of course the widespread consensus is that proper democracy is good, even if people quibble over details.

Also, consider the impact of voter ID requirements in some states of the US. Wealthy citizens are likely to have those IDs to start with, poorer ones might have to get them just for voting. And the fees hit them more, too.

Do you believe that anything good will come if voters are no longer equal before the law?

Follow-up: Well, as the saying goes, an adventure is somebody else, far away and in deep trouble ...

  • Just the ability to have votes carry over to the next election could be a game-changer. Imagine a bunch of people who haven't bothered to vote in decades, and now they're all showing up at some municipal election and cast all their stored votes at once.
  • A candidate who doesn't see a chance this time around might call on her supporters to save their votes for the next time.
  • Or that is a sham, and the candidate has a prepared last-second campaign to re-energize the voters, and to win the day because the opposition voters have been lazy.
  • Can you take votes along when you move?
  • $\begingroup$ I'm just trying to create an interesting goverment to use as a backdrop for story telling. That doesn't require it to be one I want to live in. But, for me at least, it does require it to be stable and logical enough that someone could choose to live in it, because I like my worlds to be logically consistent. $\endgroup$
    – dsollen
    Commented Nov 4, 2015 at 14:10
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ “Do you believe that anything good will come if voters are no longer equal before the law?” Well, depends on the criteria. If they were random, with some being weighted more or less but randomly assigned, then it should work out the same. If people who understood the issues rather than just reacting to marketing were counted with more weight, then it would be "good". You could have decoy questions on the ballot, or rather than simply saying "yes/no for item 4" you could ask questions concerning the ramifications of that item. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Commented Nov 6, 2015 at 1:24
  • $\begingroup$ Or the original democracy, in Ancient Greece. Only free male citizens could vote. Which was not a large fraction of the inhabitants. $\endgroup$
    – RedSonja
    Commented Mar 15, 2022 at 13:40

Maybe nothing

It sounds like votes would be really expensive. Wouldn't the typical rich person be better off buying political power in the normal way? If so, the ability to buy votes won't matter as no one will use it. They'll still purchase advertisements as a more effective form of vote buying. In order for vote buying to matter, it would need to be cheaper than our form of vote buying.

Maybe something

This would tend to favor certain groups over others. For example, let's consider how the charity reward will shift votes. In order, the following groups give the most to charity as a percentage of income:

  1. Religious conservatives.
  2. Religious liberals.
  3. Non-religious liberals.
  4. Non-religious conservatives.

So that particular rule would tend to favor the religious over the non-religious and in particular would favor religious conservatives over non-religious conservatives by a lot. Once in place, that disparity would be hard to eliminate, as the people most hurt by it would be the ones with the least political power.

Hopefully jury duty won't shift things one way or the other, but it might. For example, some lawyers believe that engineers like things to be too black or white to make good jurors. Of course, if your case involved complex math and you're right on the math, you might prefer an engineer. Those two partially counter each other, but which is more common?

People whose property is seized by eminent domain tend to be poorer, but you suggest that more valuable properties will give more credits. Maybe those two tendencies cancel. Or maybe not. Note that slum lords may have their apartment buildings condemned as well. Another concern is that the rich may choose to buy properties that are likely to be seized. The premium that they pay may be less than the cost of buying the votes directly.

Michele Bachmann fostered more than twenty children. So this system would give people like her more influence.

So if you are a religious conservative who is a big fan of Michele Bachmann, you may find this proposal to be great. If you think Michele Bachmann is the anti-Christ, not so much.

And remember that those with more political power under this system will shape future changes as well, giving them even more political power. They don't even have to do this for selfish reasons. They may simply do it because they believe in the activities in which they engage. It's possible that this system could turn into an oligarchy if this goes too far.


What you're proposing is basically something similar to the government in Starship Troopers. If you do stuff for the government, then you're showing support for this, and therefore gain extra leverage those who don't support the government don't get. Therefore, the only people with the ability to exercise power in the government are the ones who have 'proven' that they support it.


It sounds a bit like a predator and prey situation to me, you could probably simulate what would happen. The criminal and rich have much more freetime than the workers, so they could both buy more votes and do more civic duties. They can also hire assassins to take out everyone who does not want to be a slave. They can also pressure people to vote a certain way, perhaps threatening to lower their wage, fire them, set them on fire,... In the end, it is enough if they manage to pass one bill that ruins it for everyone else and they can abolish democracy altogether.


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