Prizes for Voting? Tackling Turnout in American Politics


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Our right to vote is one of the most fundamental and important rights we have in this country, but it is also important to understand that while we have the right to vote in America, we are no obligated to.

In the 2012 presidential election, over 125 million votes were cast for one of two presidential candidates. President Obama was reelected with 51% of the popular vote (a little over 65 million votes). And yet in that election, only 57.5 percent of eligible citizens cast a ballot. We should take a second to note that there are countries with so called “compulsory voting” where citizens are required vote. According to the Center for Voting and Democracy, an advocacy group for electoral reform, countries with mandatory voting, such as Australia, have achieved close to 90% voter turnout in recent years.

If only 57.5 percent of eligible voters vote in a presidential election year, you can imagine what happens at the midterms (like the one we will have in November). For context, turnout for the last five midterm elections has hovered between 39 and 42 percent. So despite how crucially important our right to vote is in this country, somewhere between 42 percent and 61 percent of the eligible population decides not to vote in a given election year.

The problem with this low voter turnout is that it can have a major impact on the types of candidates that succeed. We have talked before about the polarization of American politics into two more extreme parties unable that are unwilling to compromise. While voter turnout isn’t entirely to blame for this, you can see how if only the most enthusiastic (and usually extreme) voters turn out to vote for candidates, its more likely that those extreme candidates win primaries and general elections.

These national turnout numbers, while incredibly low themselves, don’t reflect the even lower turnout for state and local elections. In Los Angeles, CA, for instance, only 23 percent of registered voters cast ballots in last year’s mayor election and last month a special school board election had a turnout that was below 10% according to the Los Angeles Times.

So the question is, how do we confront this problem? Los Angeles city officials came up with a pretty straightforward way to get people to the polls: incentivize people to vote (clearly civic duty just isn’t cutting it anymore).

Last month, the Los Angeles Ethics Commission voted to study using cash prizes to entice more people into voting. Voters who cast a ballot for a local election would be eligible to win as much as $100,000 (the exact amount would be worked out in a pilot program, according to commission president Nathan Hochman).

But there are a couple of problems with this plan. First, providing these kinds of incentives for people to come out and vote is illegal if there is a federal candidate on the ballot, so such a cash prize could only be offered when only local and state candidates appear on the ballot.

Such activities are banned under Section 597 of Title 18 of the United States Code, which prohibits people from making “an expenditure to any person, either to vote or withhold his vote or vote for or against any candidate.” Additionally, 48 states have passed similar laws that prohibit this kind of activity in state and local elections. The only reason that Los Angeles is even able to consider this is because California is one of the two states where it is not explicitly banned (the other is Alaska). So it’s probably not a good national solution to the problem. That being said, research conducted by Princeton University political scientist, Victoria Shineman, seems to indicate that financial incentives could be an effective tool to increase turnout.

Another concern with this plan seems to be its potential to attract people who are “only in it for the money” to the voting booth. This has the potential to skew election results just as badly if people fill in a random assortment of bubbles on their ballots just to receive or be eligible for a cash prize. You’re then left with a value judgment of whether its better to have only those that are passionate and informed voting or everyone voting no matter how informed they are. After all, right now, there’s nothing that requires that the people showing up to vote be well informed, or that they not just randomly color in the bubbles on their ballot.

Finally, even if we accept that it’s ok to provide an incentive to encourage people to vote, then the question becomes what an appropriate incentive is. Obviously, a cash prize is an effective way to incentivize lower income Californians to get to the voting booth, but at the same time, a cash prize might not be an incentive for wealthier Californians. So the nature of the incentive can dramatically affect the type of voter is who is more likely to vote as a result. This is where things could get complicated, and savvy politicians could try to influence the nature of the prize in order to encourage voters more likely to support their candidacy to come to the polls. Yikes!

Los Angeles is obviously rightfully concerned about the implications of voter turnout (as we all should be) and I never like to be one to poke holes in innovative thinking, but it seems like this type of incentive could have some dangerous unintended consequences. Perhaps in taking the time to study this, Los Angeles will be able to work out some of these concerns, but voter turnout remains a national issue and other steps will certainly be required to address it across the country.


About John Wilson

John Wilson is an analytical communications professional, with a passion for sifting through data for compelling stories and insights. John started his career on Capitol Hill and chased his love of data and communications out of politics and into opinion research and public relations. John graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the George Washington University where he studied political science and statistics. Beyond work, John loves the mountains and can be found skiing or hiking in both the Sierras and the Rockies.
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