Larry Platt, the editor of the Philadelphia Citizen, felt like Ed McMahon on election day last November. He was at a local polling station with an oversized $10,000 check in hand and cameras in tow. Who was the lucky winner? A school crossing guard named Bridget Conroy-Varnis. What did she do to attract such a windfall? She voted.
Founded in 2015, the Citizen is an unconventional publication, interested in not only writing about the city’s problems but exploring and testing solutions. The voting lottery, paid for by a private local foundation, was one of its earliest experiments, aimed at increasing paltry turnout in the city’s local elections.
"People have lost faith that their vote matters," says Platt. "What we have [in Philadelphia] is a corrupt one-party system of political leadership. The people who run the corrupt system are invested in keeping the status quo. The more people we have weighing in on how the system is run, the more you break down the status quo and the narrow self-interest of those who run the city."
Incentives for voting aren’t new. Think about the businesses, ranging from Ben and Jerry's and Starbucks to Chick-fil-A and Krispy Kreme, that give out free ice cream or coffee on Election Day. Even these small prizes, however, are technically against federal law, which says no rewards can be tied to voting in federal elections. But a number of states allow it in non-federal election years as long, as the prize doesn’t favor one candidate or party.
Now a free cone might not offer a very good reason to wait in a long line or take an hour off of work to vote if you weren’t going to anyway. But a large jackpot—even if only given to one random voter—could be different.
The Philadelphia lottery was inspired by a similar one, called Voteria, held just a few months earlier in Los Angeles. There, U.S. Army Veteran Ivan Rojas, a voter in an even lower-profile race for District 5’s seat on Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education, won a $25,000 jackpot sponsored by a Latino-focused nonprofit, the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project.
"There’s a lot in the political science literature about incentive voting: ‘If you give someone a gift card, how much do you have to give them?,’" says Fernando Guerra, an academic who chaired the city’s Elections Reform Commission and helped with Voteria. "I wasn’t interested in doing that. I thought you had to be very dramatic."
As in Philadelphia, he says local elections are uninspiring. Who will win is often a foregone conclusion, or the differences between candidates are slim. Local media coverage—even for elections to a school board that controls a $6.5 billion budget—is also usually minimal.
Both lotteries, in Philadelphia and Los Angeles, went off without a hitch, and each did have a small effect. In LA, polling showed that only 16% of voters had heard of Voteria, but of those, 25% said it influenced their decision to vote. Guerra says this boosted overall turnout in the election by 4% in aggregate. In Philadelphia, a pre-election poll conducted by the Emerson College Polling Society showed that 30% of voters surveyed had heard of the lottery, and a post-election poll found turnout to be 5% higher among this group.
Neither boost was huge, but it could be the start of something meaningful. Platt says that if the lottery was held every election, it would become well-known over time and that this would translate to 50,000 more votes cast, based on the poll results. "That would be significant. 50,000 votes in Philadelphia can actually sway elections," he says. (Total turnout for the 2015 general election for mayor amounted to only 239,000 votes).
Defenders of high-minded civic duty hate the idea. A Los Angeles Times editorial called Voteria a cynical gimmick—not much better than a bribe—that, at best, demeans the value of voting and, at worst, is anti-democratic if advertised more heavily to Latinos than others. "The losers are the people who still believe in the integrity of the democratic process," the paper wrote. The city of Los Angeles had already decided not to pursue a proposal for a citywide lottery.
Guerra says these arguments are ridiculous: There is no such thing as "the wrong kind of turnout," or an uninformed voter, and anyway, people receive money for other civic responsibilities like jury duty. "Critics say you are infusing money into the election process. You must be living under a rock if you think that money isn’t already infused in elections," he says.
In the U.S. today, voter turnout stats are grim. In the last decade or so, they’ve hovered around 60% for presidential elections, 40% for mid-term elections, and 25% or less for many local and state elections. And those are just eligible voters. Never has more than half the total U.S. population decided who is president: In 2008, when the largest absolute number of U.S. residents voted in history, only 43% actually cast a ballot (though those who didn't vote included 3.1 million felons and former felons, people under 18, and non-citizens).
Low turnout skews America’s politics at every level. Even five decades after the Voting Rights Act, people who vote are older, wealthier, more educated, more white, and often less progressive compared to non-voters. In 2008, for example, turnout was 78% among those making more than $150,000 a year and 41% for those who made less than $15,000. In local elections and primaries, the people who actually go to polls are often the die-hard partisans.
Last year, President Obama wondered out loud how our democracy would change if everyone voted. "More than anything," he said, the potentially transformative idea would remake the country’s political map and counteract the influence of money in elections.
He wasn’t being delusional. Most people don’t realize that more than 20 democracies, including Australia, Brazil, Belgium, and Mexico, have compulsory voting in some form. Usually a citizen who decides not to show up at the polls must pay a small fine—in Australia, it's $20—though no one is actually forcing people to fill in the ballot. But as a result, actual turnout in these countries averages about 90%. Money can go to talking about real issues, rather than get out the vote campaigns. And in Australia, compulsory voting turned political discourse away from ideological extremes and towards the center.
Obama’s musings aside, compulsory voting in the U.S. is probably a pipe dream. It runs against America’s history of individualism, and Republican leaders—whose poll numbers benefit from today’s low turnout demographics—are unlikely to get on board. In fact, in some states, voting laws today are going in the opposite direction. Voter ID and proof of citizenship requirements, tactics proven to lower turnout among groups like minorities and college students already less likely to vote, are back in vogue.
None of this has stifled new ideas about how to boost voter numbers, however, especially as eligible American voters get younger and more diverse. And lotteries are far from the only idea. Oregon became the first state last year to pass an automatic voter registration bill, making registration opt-out instead of opt-in, and California followed. A few cities, like Takoma Park, Maryland, have lowered the voting age to 16-years-old—studies show that getting young people engaged in voting earlier increases the chance they’ll become a lifelong voter.
Some states are expanding early voting, weekend voting, or longer hours—though studies show the former can backfire and reduce the Election Day momentum that helps get people to the polls, according to Pew Research. Many advocates say that voting should open on weekends or there should be an election week, though election costs would rise. Others—including presidential candidate Bernie Sanders—are proposing to set aside election day as a national holiday. One day, though likely not any time soon, online or mobile voting could drastically reduce the perceived barriers to voting, too.
More radical ideas involve broader election reform, including wholesale redistricting so elections are more competitive between parties, abolishing the electoral college in favor of a national popular vote, and a compelling idea called ranked-choice voting. In a ranked-choice vote, voters simply rank the candidates in order of choice, rather than only voting for one—a process that could help avoid leaders who win with less than a majority, make legislatures more representative of the spectrum of voters, and dramatically change how campaigns are run. Yet while all of these reform ideas are interesting to consider, most seem only slightly more likely than mandatory voting.
As for the lottery, Platt acknowledges it feels a bit icky. "I don’t know if ultimately paying people to vote is the answer, but we’re in a civic participation crisis, and everything should be on the table."