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Votes Can Be Confidently Bought in Some Ranked Ballot Elections, and What to Do about It

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  06 May 2024

Jack R. Williams
Democracy Works, Brooklyn, NY, USA
Samuel Baltz*
Department of Political Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, USA
Charles Stewart III
Department of Political Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, USA
Corresponding author: Samuel Baltz; Email:


We show that, in some ranked ballot elections, it may be possible to violate the secret vote. There are so many ways to rank even a handful of candidates that many possible rankings might not be cast by any voter. So, a vote buyer could pay someone to rank the candidates a certain way and then use the announced election results to verify that the voter followed through. We examine the feasibility of this attack both theoretically and empirically, focusing on instant runoff voting (IRV). Although many IRV elections have few enough candidates that this scheme is not feasible, we use data from San Francisco and a proposed election rule change in Oakland to show that some important IRV elections can have large numbers of unused rankings. There is no evidence that this vote-buying scheme has ever been used. However, its existence has implications for the administration and security of IRV elections. This scheme is more feasible when more candidates can be ranked in the election and when the election results report all the ways that candidates were ranked.

© The Author(s), 2024. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of The Society for Political Methodology

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Edited by: Lonna Atkeson


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