Who Stigmatizes Vote Buying?

During political campaigns in Latin America it is not uncommon to hear NGOs, journalists, academics or even politicians denounce that certain parties or candidates engage in clienelistic practices such as vote buying. These actors tend to argue that clientelism has a negative impact on the quality of democracy, distorting the general will and generating poverty traps (Fox 1994; Schaffer 2007; Magaloni 2006). By contrast, some social scientists offer a different perspective on the nature and consequences of the phenomenon. Their views are often shaped by their ethnographic immersion in the communities in which these transactions take place. This line of scholarship takes into account the point of view of the “client,” who tends to see in clientelistic networks invaluable sources of economic and social assistance, in addition to the nurturing of interpersonal relationships characterized by trust, solidarity and reciprocity (e.g. Auyero 1999). Given the evanescence of the state in certain areas of the developing world, there are grounds on which to legitimately defend this alternative take on vote buying transactions. More generally, while the first group emphasizes the negative externalities of vote buying at a systemic level, the second puts emphasis on its positive effects at the individual level.

What do voters think about vote buying? Who stigmatizes the practice? Under what conditions is stigmatization more likely? Are all clientelistic transactions held to similar standards? In a recent article published in the American Journal of Political Science we try to answer these questions using original surveys conducted in 5 Latin American countries. The surveys include a series of experiments. To our knowledge, this study constitutes the first systematic attempt to study the complex of social norms and public attitudes towards this widespread variety of electioneering.

The level of stigmatization of the exchange of money for votes during electoral campaign is generally high in our five countries (Bolivia, Uruguay, Honduras, Nicaragua and Peru). After we presented respondents with a hypothetical transaction, over 70% described it as unacceptable or totally unacceptable. In spite of this consensus, there are patterns of variation in the levels of stigmatization consistent with a series of hypothesis derived from our theoretical framework. We argue that there are three mechanisms that shape individual level attitudes towards vote buying, leading citizens to focus on either the negative effects of the practice at a systemic level (e.g. quality of democracy, competitiveness of elections, corrupt use of public monies etc.), or the positive effects at the individual level (e.g. minimizing economic insecurity).

In the first place, the stigmatization of vote buying is related to political socialization trajectories. Those who benefit directly from the practice or those who identify with parties that are known for forging clientelistic linkages, tend to show more positive attitudes.

Second, those who adhere to the idea that one has a moral imperative to return favors (the norm of reciprocity) are expected to take into consideration the interpersonal ethical dimension of the exchange of gifts for votes. In other words, for these citizens it is not necessarily wrong to return a favor, including the handing out of money by a party broker during an electoral campaign. Even when this norm is in conflict with those that highlight the negative effects of vote buying, we argue that adhering to reciprocity values softens the stigmatization of the practice.

Finally, education as a proxy of political sophistication explains variation in the extent to which respondents reject vote buying. More educated individuals are more aware of the distant and often too abstract negative effects of vote buying at a systemic level. In addition, we argue that these individuals are able to factor in contextual characteristics of clientelistic transactions, strengthening or relaxing the norm against the practice depending on who is the client. For example, it could be argued that the systemic cost of buying preferences is higher than that of buying participation, because in the former case the popular will is clearly being distorted. Similarly, the benefits that a vote buying transaction generates for a very poor client render that transaction more acceptable, even when factoring in the systemic costs, than in the case of a middle class client.

In order to investigate these nuances in citizens’ attitudes, we designed a series of experiments in which the attributes of the client change. Overall, we find that respondents distinguish between different vote buying situations: they stigmatize poor clients much less than those who have no problem making ends meet, and they stigmatize those who sell their preference (preference buying) more that those who comply with clientelistic transactions initiated by a party which they support (participation buying). These aggregate results, however, hide interesting patterns of variation compatible with our education hypothesis. The findings indicate that more educated respondents are more likely to make these distinctions.

The development of norms against corrupt electoral practices is a crucial first step in the process of eradicating them from parties’ investment portfolios. The evidence we present in the paper shows that at least in these five Latin American countries, the anti-vote buying discourse has taken root. The stigmatization of vote buying, however, is still not consistent across the board. Citizens’ capacity or predisposition to focus on the negative systemic effects of clientelism instead of the positive effects at the level of individual clients, are a function of a series of mechanisms that include political socialization, adherence to norms of reciprocity, and levels of political sophistication.


It is important to identify the factors that determine the levels of stigmatization of vote buying in order to understand the conditions under which, for example, anti-vote buying campaigns organized by civil society or the state are more likely to be effective. If there is one policy lesson that can be derived from the study is that elites opposed to the clientelistic culture prevalent in many corners of the world must take into account individuals’ personal experience with vote buying when crafting their message. These routine encounters with political machines can soften adherence to abstract values that many of us take for granted, such as transparency or the quality of electoral competition.



  • Auyero, Javier. 1999. “From the Client’s Point(s) of View: How Poor People Percieve and Evaluate Political Clientelism,” in Theory and Society, 28: 297-334.
  • Fox, Jonathan. 1994. “The Difficult Transition from Clientelism to Citizenship: Lessons from Mexico,” in World Politics, 46 (2): 151-184.
  • Magaloni, Beatriz. 2006. Voting for Autocracy. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Schaffer, Frederic. 2007. “How Effective is Voter Education”. In Frederic Schaffer. ed. Elections for Sale: The Causes and Consequences of Vote Buying. Manila, Philippines: Ateneo de Manila University Press.


About the Authors: Ezequiel González Ocantos is an Associate Professor (untenured) in the Department of Political Science and International Relations at University of Oxford. The article “The Conditionality of Vote Buying Norms: Experimental Evidence from Latin America” , co-authored by Chad Kiewiet de Jonge, Visiting Assistant Professor, Political Studies Division, Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas, CIDE (Mexico City) and David Nickerson, Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Notre Dame,  appeared in the January 2014 issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.