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In US Politics, what is Street Money?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Street money is money which is used to influence the outcome of an election by essentially buying votes. In many areas, the practice of outright vote buying is forbidden, but street money can take advantage of a variety of loopholes and officials who are willing to look the other way. Many people consider the practice to be highly questionable, since it is a bit unethical, and several politicians have taken a firm stance on the issue, refusing to disburse street money because they feel it is undemocratic.

When politicians distribute this money, they typically disburse large funds to local party offices and organizers, rather than handling the money themselves. The local party office can decide how best to the distribute the money, based on the community involved and the amount of funds available. By divorcing themselves from the practice, politicians can also claim ignorance, saying that they didn't know how the money would be used.

In one form of street money disbursement, voters are offered cash or other compensation, such as food, for voting. In these instances, voters are not explicitly told how to vote, but the implications are clear: by accepting money from a particular campaign, a voter does take on a sort of obligation to vote for that campaign. Another distribution technique involves paying people for work they don't actually do, thereby concealing the fact that street money is involved. For example, someone might be given cash for working as a phone canvasser, when in fact he or she did not work for the campaign.

The money can also be used to influence people who are prominent in a community. By offering funds to these individuals, a campaign hopes to buy their endorsement and support, mobilizing these people and the organizations they work with to get out the vote on election day. In this case, street money can be distributed in a variety of ways, ranging from grants to community organizations to outright cash payments.

As a general rule, street money is targeted at low-income, minority neighborhoods. It takes advantage of poverty and a lack of knowledge about the rules of politics to manipulate the vote, using the masses of these communities to skew election results in the favor of a particular campaign. This practice is also extremely widespread in politics, and it is very difficult to police, making it tempting even for otherwise ethical politicians who may feel like they cannot win an election without street money.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By TreeMan — On Mar 03, 2012
@jmc88 - At the national level for the presidency, you are correct. However, there are plenty of local politicians in major cities like Chicago, that utilize street money to their advantage in order to get entire neighborhoods to vote for them.

This scenario brings a much bigger impact onto the election and will sway a much higher percentage of the votes as opposed to a presidential election.

This does happen quite often in larger cities, an in offices for state government, but it is also something that rarely happens at the national level.

Like the first post said a reporter will be all over that story if they were to catch a Congressman giving out street money, and even if he or she were to claim ignorance, that could kill their campaign.

I see it as more of a localized thing and I guarantee if you use my hometown of Chicago as an example, you can really see how much of an impact soft money has on elections.

By jmc88 — On Mar 02, 2012

I have always wondered exactly what type of impact street money actually has?

I mean in a large election, like a presidential election, I do not really think that it would be possible for a candidate to bribe people enough money to get them to vote for them.

Say if they wanted to bribe 20 million voters, they would have to pay them enough to coerce them to vote for them, and unless the guy is worth billions, I doubt that they will be able to distribute enough money to sway that many people.

I really do not see exactly what the impact of street money can be and wonder if it is just a very small edge that politicians think they need to have, but in the end it does not matter a whole lot and has very minute impact.

By stl156 — On Mar 02, 2012

@matthewc23 - That is something that I wish they would get rid of, but look at who is in office and makes the laws. This would immediately affect the politicians that are running for office and I am betting there is a faction at most levels of government that will squash any measure against street money and the ethical politicians do not even try to pursue it, because they know it is always a losing battle.

Unfortunately the only way we can deal with this is to continue to scrutinize and try to vote these guys out of office that do this.

I will have to say there is an honest way to dispense money, but street money is not it and it is something that we may have to deal with as laws will be very unlikely to be passed to make this method of distributing money in the political realm impossible to do.

By matthewc23 — On Mar 01, 2012
Oh boy, here is another political strategy that we may be seeing come election time.

I do not understand how things like this can happen nowadays in the age of public scrutiny and the days where the media reporter is always around the corner to drop the bomb on a story like this.

I really do not understand how this is allowed to happened considering that bribery is illegal in this country and that it is something that is a federal crime in some cases.

I know that some politicians do not like this strategy because one could essentially buy an election, but I do not understand why they do not make a law against this to prevent the divorcing of the money from the candidate to these places that distribute.

This is still highly illegal and they simply get away with it through technicalities. If they were to pass firmer laws that could limit where politicians can give their money to they can eliminate street money, or bribery as I see it.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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