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The problem with paying people to vote

Would you cast a ballot if you could win $10,000?


Gillian Branstetter

Internet Culture

Posted on Oct 26, 2015   Updated on May 27, 2021, 6:10 pm CDT

While the social media era was supposed to make Americans more engaged, constantly Facebooking our political opinions hasn’t changed America’s voting problem.

It’s no secret that the U.S. still has one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the developed world. According to the Pew Research Center, just 53.6 percent of adults participated in the 2012 election—and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The 2014 midterm elections only pulled 36.4 percent of eligible voters, and a University of Wisconsin analysis of 144 American cities found an average voter turnout of just 20 percent for local offices—including mayors, judges, and commissioners.

One city believes it found a way to get more people off their computers and in the voting booth on Election Day. The Philadelphia Citizen, a media company based out of the City of Brotherly Love, will give $10,000 to a random voter—effectively turning the city’s local elections into a lottery. While the Citizen’s editors recognize that giving out a prize for voting is “sorta icky,” the group justifies it by viewing the low voter turnout as “chronic civic participation malaise,” arguing that “desperate times call for desperate measures.”

They are right about one thing: Voter turnout should be treated as a crisis in a country that praises the glory of democracy while barely participating in its own elections. The solution, however, is not to merely get more people to cast a ballot; voting is meaningless when it’s not backed by knowledge of the actual issues.

This is far from the first attempt to put a cash incentive behind the ballot box. Last year in Los Angeles, where voter turnout is at its lowest in a century, an investigation by the city council seriously considered a similar lottery program before ruling it out. In 2006, Arizona held a ballot initiative to give a $1 million prize to a random voter to encourage turnout. In support of the bill, then-gubernatorial candidate Dr. Mark Osterloh argued: “What’s the worst thing that could happen? Who do you know that doesn’t want to be a millionaire? …Everybody who’s eligible to vote could be voting.” Voters didn’t agree, turning down the initiative.

The solution, however, is not to merely get more people to cast a ballot: Voting is meaningless when it’s not backed by knowledge of the actual issues.

Giving people incentive to vote in local and state elections is not illegal in most states, including Pennsylvania. Small enticements, such as a free donut from Krispy Kreme or the famous “I Voted” stickers, have been deemed by most courts to be so small as to not affect turnout and, therefore, don’t matter. The data backs up that assertion: A 2013 study by Fordham’s Costas Panagapoulos found $1 or even $5 would not encourage people to vote who normally wouldn’t, but $25 would certainly turn heads.

So if we agree low voter turnout is a problem that social media engagement won’t solve on its own and there’s a relatively effective way to increase it, what’s the problem?

As the Los Angeles Times noted when the council began considering the lottery, paying people to vote removes what should be the inherent incentive of voting—taking part in civic government to change your world for the better. “This gimmick perverts the motivation to vote,” wrote the Times editorial board, arguing the cash prize “only underscores the cynical view that people don’t care about their local government anymore and the only way to get them to vote is to bribe them.”

Cash incentives cheapen voting—a form of participation that’s just one facet of encouraging an active citizenry. The other part, whether people like it or not, is actually knowing what you’re voting for.

In the Internet era, being an informed digital citizen is easier than it has ever been in the history of the country. Voters today have unprecedented access to politicians, budgets, and data through social media. Candidates post clearly written proposals and issue papers on their websites. “Explainers” on a variety of issues have become an official part of Internet political culture. You can even take a BuzzFeed quiz to find out which candidate most aligns with your own values.

Yet American voters continue to lack key political knowledge, especially on a local level. A Pew Research Center survey found that most respondents were unable to identify which party holds the House or Senate, or correctly name the number of female Supreme Court justices on the bench. A third of Americans can’t name the rights guaranteed them by the First Amendment, according to a different study; the same number couldn’t name the year in which Sept. 11 occurred.

Rather than getting informed on the issues, what a cash incentive encourages is what political scientists have termed “low-information voting.” Ethicist and Georgetown professor of philosophy Jason Brennan thinks uninformed voting not only damages our democracy but is actively immoral. “As soon as you step in the voting booth, you acquire a duty to know what you’re doing,” writes Brennan in his book, The Ethics of Voting. “It’s fine to be ignorant, misinformed, or irrational about politics, so long as you don’t impose your political preferences upon others using the coercive power of government.”

Paying people to vote removes what should be the inherent incentive of voting—taking part in civic government to change your world for the better. 

This is not to say that all voters should be bookish obsessives poring over reports from think-tanks to be active. People vote their values as much as their pocketbooks, as evidenced by the recent rise of GOP presidential nominee Ben Carson. The most popular Facebook page for his supporters cites Carson’s religious beliefs far more than his political acumen—as does Dr. Carson himself. But even the “values voter” should be dismayed by cash-for-turnout: If such programs cheapen the meaning of civic duty, it cheapens it for everyone.

This is precisely what initiatives like the Philadelphia Citizen’s plan incentivize. If such groups would like to inspire people to vote, they would do better to remove the barriers that keep many people from voting in the first place. According to a study released this July by the U.S. Elections Project, the most commonly cited reason non-voters give for not participating is they’re “too busy.” Depending on your state, voter registration can mean managing deadlines and keeping voter ID up to date—even as you move for school or a career. Completing these through the mail is tiresome, especially to digital natives averse to anything with a paper trail.

However, the Washington Post’s Reid Wilson points out only 14 states address this issue by providing online voter registration, a proven way to grow voter turnout. While the U.S. lags behind other Western nations, turnout among registered voters is among the highest—at 84 percent. The people who want to contribute to our democracy actively are, but for many, the hurdles to do so are too great to justify it.

The road to more participation does not end in treating our democracy like a raffle. The influence of money in Super PACs already degrades our political process, and the voter is the last bastion of the election process not tainted by the influence of money and greed. There are many things we can change to make voting easier and increase turnout rates, but cities would do best to consider them before they give cash an even larger role in our democracy.

Gillian Branstetter is a social commentator with a focus on the intersection of technology, security, and politics. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Business Insider, Salon, the Week, and xoJane. She attended Pennsylvania State University. Follow her on Twitter @GillBranstetter

Photo via Seth Thomas Rasmussen/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)

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*First Published: Oct 26, 2015, 9:55 pm CDT