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Elections and Change Under 'Voting with Dollars'

20 Pages Posted: 18 May 2002  

Pamela S. Karlan

Stanford Law School


This is a review essay of Bruce Ackerman and Ian Ayres' book, "Voting with Dollars: A New Paradigm for Campaign Finance."

The book combines two distinct proposals ? Ackerman's for decentralized public funding of political campaigns through "Patriot Dollars" and Ayres' for requiring anonymity in political contributions. Although the authors focus on explaining why political spending should be more like voting, their proposal will also make voting more like spending. This review examines three assumptions about voting and how they shed light on the proposal.

First, Ackerman and Ayres characterize voting as anonymous. I suggest that the pedigree and extent of anonymity are complicated in important ways. The secret ballot reflected a change in American politics from a "democracy of partisanship" to a "democracy of information." It is not entirely coincidental that participation declined sharply as voting became more private. More broadly, the secret ballot entrenched existing political parties.

Even aside from tainted origins and entrenching effects, secrecy in voting is not an unalloyed good. While secrecy protects free choice, it also can lessen a voter's sense of accountability. It is worth pausing before extending anonymity even further. This should be especially true for Ackerman, given another strand of his current project: the establishment of "Deliberation Day," a national holiday on which citizens will engage in face-to-face discussion and debate. Deliberation Day reflects an equally important "core attribute" of voting: its public dimension.

Moreover, as a descriptive matter, while it is difficult to determine how any particular individual has voted, it is not difficult to make informed estimates about group behavior. Thus, if politicians want to know where their financial support is coming from, there are ways for them to find out. The decline in practical anonymity suggests that the authors may be overoptimistic in believing that they can produce an anonymous donation booth.

Second, Ackerman and Ayres assume voters are badly informed. They aspire to create a more informed electorate. I suggest some skepticism about whether Patriot dollars will produce the engaged electorate they expect. Moreover, to the extent that the authors are right about the beneficial effects of Patriot dollars, the donation booth becomes more troubling.

Third, Ackerman and Ayres recognize that representation today rests on a geographic basis. I show how Voting With Dollars creates a de facto species of cumulative voting for Congress and may create a variant of the national presidential primary. Voters who live in states whose delegate election processes take place late in the nomination process can cast their Patriot "votes" early. At the same time, candidates who want late-state voters to send them Patriot dollars to deploy in early-state primaries may have to devote more attention to voters in late states, thereby requiring them to run a campaign that is not so heavily targeted toward the unrepresentative early electorates.

In light of the vast literature and experience with cumulative voting, I suggest some possible modifications of the authors' proposals. Traditional voting is only partially anonymous. In deciding which candidates to support with his Patriot dollars, an engaged citizen can consider information about the likely base of a candidate's traditional electoral support. By contrast, the authors' model statute fails to provide analogous information about the source of a candidate's haul of Patriot dollars. At the very least, Patriot dollars ought to be "tagged" with the same kind of information that accompanies votes ? for example, identification by the donor's voting precinct.

Moreover, if Patriot dollars and votes come to be seen as substantially interchangeable, as the authors sometimes suggest, this may have unfortunate citizenship effects. The message sent by a world in which most Americans participate in politics only by writing a check, rather than casting a vote, is an ominous one. The physical act of voting carries significant social meaning. I suggest that a citizen's Patriot account should be replenished after an election only if she actually votes as well. To the extent that this creates an incentive for armchair participants to perform the central civic act of voting, such a requirement might create a powerful citizenship effect of its own.

Suggested Citation

Karlan, Pamela S., Elections and Change Under 'Voting with Dollars'. California Law Review. Available at SSRN: or

Pamela S. Karlan (Contact Author)

Stanford Law School ( email )

559 Nathan Abbott Way
Stanford, CA 94305-8610
United States

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