Voto di scambio (Italy)

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Voto di scambio 🇮🇹
Italy map.png
Location: Italy
Definition: Trading electoral votes for short-term benefits, pay or favours
Keywords: Italy Europe EU Election Political party Favour Fraud Vote exchange Favour Patronage
Clusters: Patron-client networks Amoral familialism
Author: Alberica Camerani
Affiliation: School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London, UK

By Alberica Camerani, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London, UK

Voto di scambio is an Italian expression (votu di scanciu in Sicilian) that can be translated as an ‘exchange of vote’. It is used to denote the trade of electoral votes for short-term favors and particularistic benefits. Compravendita di voti (literally buying and selling of votes) refers to this practice when the votes are sold for money. According to Pasquino and Parisi[1], the peculiarity of this kind of vote is the immediate and personalized reward for the electoral act.

Historically, voto di scambio originated in Southern Italy, however, there is evidence of such practices in Northern Italy as well. For example, in 2012 the Lombardia councillor Domenico Zambetti was arrested for allegedly buying 4,000 votes for 200,000 Euro, 50 Euro for each vote[2].

The exchange of vote usually occurs within a clientelistic relationship, defined by Scott as ‘a special case of dyadic ties involving a largely instrumental friendship in which an individual of higher socioeconomic status (patron) uses his own influence and resources to provide protection or benefits, or both, for a person of lower status (client) who, for his part, reciprocates by offering general support and assistance, including personal services, to the patron’[3]. In Italy, two types of clientelism can be observed. In the classic clientelism, the notabili (notables) were the patrons controlling resources that ‘had little to do with the exercise of public power, but flowed from their personal wealth, social standing and prestige’[4].

However, the clientelistic relationship widespread nowadays is based on the mass party organization and it developed in the 1950s, as a result of the expansion of the public sector and the increase of the state activities. In this case, the patron is a ‘political party which uses its control of public resources to distribute individual benefits (state jobs, pensions, subsidies and even collective benefits such as roads, housing and sport facilities), all in exchange for electoral backing’[5] (see also Parteibuchwirtschaft).

The negotiations surrounding the purchase of votes are not usually conducted directly by the electoral candidate who is seeking votes, but by intermediary agents. In a typical scheme of the voto di scambio, the political candidate agrees with an intermediary on the desired amount of electoral votes; then, the agents turn to their networks, formed by smaller intermediaries (galoppini), and task them with a number of votes to find. The term galoppini may be literally translated as ‘galloping minions’ and refers to their dynamic and active task of ‘going around praising the leader.’ Usually, galoppini are themselves recipients of ‘favours, promises of job, or other tangible benefits for them or members of their family’[6]. As stated by Allum, ‘the politician wanting to expand their network can rely intermediaries with two types of strategic roles of controlling groups of votes: grandi elettori and capi elettori.’[7] The difference between them is in the number of groups that they control. The grandi elettori (literally great electors) are mayors, parish priests or landowners who can influence several groups while capi elettori (head electors) control one local group (the mafia is often involved in these).

The benefits received by voters in exchange for their votes can take many forms; Saviano reports on witness testimonies of electoral votes being exchanged for houses, laundry machines, fridges, jobs, pasta, food, street lights, phone credit, fuel, gas for heating, and insurance and mortgage discount.[8] In addition to this, Ancisi mentions ‘job promotions, construction permits, business licenses, artisan certificates and road paving’[9].

Different mechanisms ensure that the voters do not break the deal. The investigation ‘Il principe e la ballerina’ (‘The prince and the dancing ballot’), launched by the District Anti-Mafia Directorate of Napoli revealed a stratagem based on ballot swapping. Once the terms of the exchange are agreed upon, the voter receives a filled-in ballot to take with them to the polling station. In the voting booth, the voter swaps the regular empty ballot with the filled-in one and inserts it into the ballot box. To claim their reward, the voter must hand the empty ballot to the agent, who will use it for further exchanges[8]. Other methods involve the use of a camera or complicity of ‘a member of the polling station or rappresentante di lista [literally party-list representative]’[10].

Scholarship[11][12][13] has associated voto di scambio also with the preference voting system (voto di preferenza). The Italian electoral system allows the use of voto di preferenza in municipal, regional and European elections. In these types of elections, the citizen votes for the party list and can additionally indicate the name of a preferred party candidate from the list. According to Pasquino, preference voting ‘is used as a bargaining chip by the voter and as a commodity that can be bought by the candidate’[14]. For example, preference voting allows for one of the most common ways of ensuring that the voters keep their word in a vote exchange. In addition to voting for a party, voters are asked to give their preferential vote to a candidate who is on the party list only as a filler for that particular polling station and is not meant to receive any votes outside it. If the scrutiny later reveals that this candidate did not receive any votes, it means that the voters did not keep their promise.

‘Tentativo di arginare il voto di scambio’ (Attempt to control the vote of exchange) Source: lorZ. CC BY-NC 2.0. Translation: ‘Notice. It is forbidden to use mobile phones with a camera or other devices able to take pictures inside the electoral booths. Those who breach this prohibition will be reported to the authority according to the articles 96, 97 and 100 of the Presidential Decree, dated 30 march 1957, number 361 and further modifications’

Scholars have investigated the motivations of the elettori di scambio (exchange voters). Several have relied on Banfield’s seminal thesis that sees ‘amoral familiarism’ as one of the causes of the ‘backwardness’ of certain societies[15]. While observing everyday life in Montegrano, a South Italian village, Banfield noticed that the self-interested, family centric society seemed unable ‘to act together for their common good or, indeed, for any end transcending the immediate, material interest of the nuclear family’. He claimed this behaviour was seemed ‘fairly [representative of] the typical south’[15]. Among other causes, ‘the weakness of the administrative and judicial state structures that favoured the creation and the development of patronage systems which increasingly deeply have undermined the basis of the state authority’ has been suggested[16].

Gambetta highlights the ‘ancient tradition of lack of trust,’ which ‘produces a general reluctance towards impersonal and extensive forms of cooperation’ [17]. Referring to the political behaviour of the low income neighbourhood in Palermo, Chubb highlights ‘their extreme social and economic fragmentation and the absence of any associative structures which could serve as poles of aggregation for the population’ as a critical factor[18]. Moreover, she adds that ‘in the absence of alternative structure to aggregate and mobilize collective interests, every individuals seeks to resolve his problems on his own, through whatever channels are open to him’[18].

Research on vote buying[19] shows that this practice affects all countries of the Americas. According to the report, the strongest predictor of the likelihood that an individual is offered a material benefit in exchange for his vote is whether they are politically and civically engaged (the ‘participatory citizen’). However, in the profile of the Italian elettore di scambio as presented by Pasquino and Parisi is not politically engaged and ‘has not any motivation to vote when he cannot be guaranteed any remuneration that provides him of immediate and individual benefits’[20].

A report on corruption for 2015 and 2016 published by the national institute of Statistics reveals that the vote of exchange was proposed to 1.7 million citizens (3.7 per cent of the citizens between 18 and 80 years old)[21]. According to the data, voto di scambio was more likely the subject of municipal elections, and it more likely took place in Italian islands (6.7 per cent) and in the South of Italy (8.4 per cent). The votes were exchanged for ‘favours or privileged treatments (34.7 per cent of all vote exchanges), jobs or appointments (32.8 per cent), money (20.6 per cent)’ (ibid: 12). The indirect experience of the vote of exchange is more widespread than the personal direct experience; ‘3.9 million Italians declared knowing somebody – relatives, friends, colleagues, neighbours – who have been offered something in exchange for electoral backing’ (ibid: 13). Voto di scambio peaked in Puglia (23.7 per cent), while in Friuli Venezia Giulia the lowest percentage was reported (1.1 per cent).

In the Neapolitan popular culture the ex-major Achille Lauro, who was elected in 1952 with an impressive 300,000 of preference votes, has become legend. He used a ‘scheme of handing out shoes to his would-be supporters, the right shoe before the poll, and the left one afterwards, when the vote had been safely recorded’[22]. A similar system has been applied to banknotes as well: half of a banknote before the vote and the remaining part on exiting the poll.

In the 2012 movie Qualunquemente (it is a made up word that can be translated as ‘in whichever way’), the Italian comedian Antonio Albanese stars in the role of the entrepreneur Cetto La Qualunque (‘Mr Whatever’) who decides to run as a mayor in a small town in Calabria. During the campaign, Cetto la Qualunque is seen engaged in shady activities such as distributing petrol vouchers in the streets or handing money in the cafes to whomever declared to be ‘unsure who to vote for’. A more serious depiction of the vote of exchange is offered in the movie Una rete piena di sabbia, which illustrates the relationship between mafia and the agents of the vote of exchange in the territory of Calabria.

Analogous informal practices include political machineries (from the nineteenth to early twentieth century in the USA) and caciquismo (in Spain during the Restoration) for the likeness of their political clientelism. Moreover veza (Serbia, the Balkans), with reference to političke veze (political connections), is used similarly to obtain privileges and benefits.


  1. Parisi, A. and Pasquino, G. 1979. ‘Changes in Italian Electoral Behaviour: The Relationship between Parties and Voters’, West European Politics, 2(3): 6-30
  2. Ferrarella, L. 2012. ‘Regione Lombardia, arrestato assessore di Formigoni per voto di scambio’, Corriere della Sera, 12 October, 2112186707377.shtml
  3. Scott, J.C. 1972. ‘Patron-Client Politics and Political Change in Southeast Asia’, The American Political Science Review, 66(1): 92
  4. Caciagli, M. and Belloni, F.P. 1981. ‘The ‘new’ clientelism in Southern Italy: The Christian Democratic Party in Catania’, in S.N. Eisenstadt and R. Lemarchand (eds.), Political Clientelism, Patronage, and Development. London: Sage Publications, 35
  5. Hopkin, J. 2012. ‘Clientelism, corruption and political cartels: informal governance in Southern Europe’, in T. Christiansen and C. Neuhold (eds.), International Handbook on Informal Governance. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing: 200
  6. Greco, G. 1972. ‘Appunti per una Tipologia della Clientela’, Quaderni di Sociologia, 2: 178
  7. Allum, P.A. 1975. Potere e Società a Napoli nel Dopoguerra. Translated by A. Serafini. Torino: Einaudi, 214.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Saviano, R. 2013. ‘Ecco il prezzo dei nostri voti’, L’Espresso, 21 February, 1.51034
  9. Ancisi, A. 1976. La Cattura del Voto: Sociologia del Voto di Preferenza. Milano:Franco Angeli, 63-4
  10. Ancisi, A. 1976. La Cattura del Voto: Sociologia del Voto di Preferenza. Milano:Franco Angeli, 84
  11. Katz, S. and Bardi, L. 1980. ‘Preference Voting and Turnover in Italian Parliamentary Elections’, American Journal of Political Science, 24(1): 97-114
  12. Cartocci, R. 1987. ‘Otto Risposte a un Problema: la Divisione dell’Italia in Zone Politicamente Omogenee’, Polis, (1)3: 481-514
  13. Putnam, D.P. 1993. La Tradizione Civica nelle Regioni Italiane. Translated by N. Messora. Milano: Mondadori
  14. Pasquino, G. 1972. ‘Radici del Frazionismo e Voto di Preferenza’, Rivista Italiana di Scienza Politica, 2: 365
  15. 15.0 15.1 Banfield, E.C. 1958. The Moral Basis of a Backward Society. Glencoe: The Free Press
  16. Putnam, D.P. 1993. La Tradizione Civica nelle Regioni Italiane. Translated by N. Messora. Milano: Mondadori, 170.
  17. Gambetta, D. 1988. ‘Mafia: the price of distrust’, in D. Gambetta (ed.), Trust: Making and Breaking Cooperative Relations. Oxford: Blackwell: 162
  18. 18.0 18.1 Chubb, J. 1981. ‘The social bases of an urban political machine: The Christian Democratic Party in Palermo’, in S.N. Eisenstadt and R. Lemarchand (eds.), Political Clientelism, Patronage, and Development. Beverly Hills: Sage Publications: 81.
  19. Faughman, B. M. and Zeichmeister, E. J. 2011. ‘Vote buying in the Americas’, Americas Barometer Insight, 57,
  20. Cartocci, R. 1990. Elettori in Italia. Riflessioni sulle Vicende Elettorali degli Anni Ottanta. Bologna: Il Mulino, 107-8
  21. ISTAT. 2017. La Corruzione in Italia: il Punto di Vista delle Famiglie, +12%2Fott%2F2017+-+Testo+integrale+e+nota+metodologica.pdf
  22. Dickie, J. 2014. Blood Brotherhoods: A History of Italy's Three Mafias. New York City: Public Affairs, 317.