It’s a familiar sight in many countries: rallies at which political candidates shower the crowd with T-shirts, food or gifts of cash. The practice has gone on in some parts of the world for centuries, the candidates thinking well-placed money will earn them loyalty at the ballot box.

It makes for bad governance, and it doesn’t work.

“So long as [you, the voter] believe the ballot is secret,” said Nic Cheeseman of Oxford University, “there’s a strong incentive to take money from everybody and vote the way your conscience would have directed you anyway.”

Professor Jenny Guardado backs this argument. A political scientist who teaches in Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, she points to the findings of Afrobarometer, a pan-African research organization. The researchers report that across sub-Saharan Africa, voters strongly believe their vote is secret. In African countries, Guardado said, “55 percent of those who got a handout got them from more than one party.” Those people will vote their conscience or “use some other guidance,” she said.

Trying to buy votes “perpetuates a form of politics in which leaders don’t feel they need to respond to the genuine concerns of the citizens,” said Nic Cheeseman. (© AP Images)

Why try to buy?

If you can’t really buy votes, why are candidates giving away money?

“I think candidates give out money not because they particularly think it’s a great way of winning an election, but because voters demand it,” Cheeseman said.

A lot of candidates see “buying votes” as an expensive, and ineffective, practice. But voters should wake up to the problems they create by taking the handouts. When candidates give away money, it is very likely to increase corruption by making officials beholden to people other than those they are supposed to serve.

Cheeseman says he has spoken to members of parliament in several African nations who say their peers are vulnerable to corruption because of what it costs to get elected. “And the elections can cost four or five times an MP’s annual salary,” said Cheeseman. “So election finance gets locked into a cycle of political corruption.”

Cheeseman offers advice to officials facing re-election: “If you can demonstrate that you built a school for your community, your community will turn out to vote for you much more than if you gave them small amounts of cash in the run-up to Election Day.”

If you want to take a leadership role in improving your community, consider these tips for organizing volunteering events.