Would the Chance at a Cash Prize Get More People to Vote?

Los Angeles's city council hopes so. 


When the 2012 Los Angeles mayoral election rolled around, about 23 percent of registered voters showed up, down from 37 percent in 2001. Some district elections later saw turnout rates of as little as 15 percent—numbers that Los Angeles’s City Council president, Herb Wesson, called “abysmal” and “embarrassing.”

Wesson oversees a panel that last week voted in favor of exploring an idea that might turn those numbers around: entering anyone who votes into a lottery with a prize of up to $50,000.

It’s not an unprecedented concept. Arizona considered a similar program back in 2006 that would have given one lucky voter a $1 million prize. That prize, The New York Times helpfully pointed out at the time, featured odds of winning far better than those of Powerball. In the end, Arizona’s ballot measure failed to pass and the scheme was never realized, a fate that Los Angeles’s seed of an idea could meet as well.

But what if it gets implemented? There have been all sorts of proposals to get more people to vote, and social pressure is just one motivator proven to help. Could a cash prize also bump up voter turnout?

A useful starting point might be to look to an example of another scenario that involves paying people to engage in socially beneficial behavior that they’d otherwise shrug off: schools paying their students for getting good grades.

“Well-designed cash-for-grades schemes can both improve grades and promote learning,” says Kirabo Jackson, an economist at Northwestern University. Cash programs that are poorly thought out, he notes, could bring certain pitfalls. For example, it’s possible that a student could earn money for a high test score and still lack a deep understanding of the material, and it’s possible that a student won't have the educational foundation to see exactly how increased effort could be converted to better performance. But, if you can plan around those problems, Jackson says, giving money to students can motivate them to learn.

Promisingly, voting is a much more straightforward scenario than learning. From the perspective of evaluating a reward program's efficacy, “we do not care how they vote—simply that they vote,” says Jackson. The problems that can arise in the classroom vanish in the voting booth. “Voting is much more conducive to rewards than grades,” he says.

Given that Jackson’s take on cash-for-grades aligns with his take on a voting lottery, it makes sense that the same is true of opponents of cash-for-grades. Barry Schwartz, a professor at Swarthmore College, says that it’s not clear whether cash rewards will induce learning. “I think the reasons people do things matter just as much as that they do them,” he says. “The operative view here seems to be that it’s better for people to do the right thing for the wrong reason than not at all.”

A voting lottery might increase turnout, but to Schwartz, that’s beside the point. For one thing, he believes that such a program “virtually guarantees” that the people who turn out to vote will be less informed than the group that currently votes. On top of that, he says, “the money that corrupts the entire political system will be used to assure that some people are more likely to know about cash-for-voting than others.”

Pedro Noguera, another critic of cash-for-grades programs and a professor at New York University, says that a lottery wouldn’t be enough to overcome the belief, held by many, that voting can't change one's life. He thinks we’d be better off with anything that lowers the barriers to voting—for example, providing citizens with multiple days on which they can vote.

Democracy may be a series of experiments, but this one seems less auspicious than most. The prospect of winning thousands of dollars might well coax out a number of apathetic Angelenos, but if there’s anything to be learned from the current state of campaign financing, it’s that we should probably be supporting initiatives that would extract money from politics—not initiatives that inject more into it.