If Voters Need To Be Bribed To Turn Out, Do We Really Want Them Voting?

Jim Huffman Dean Emeritus, Lewis & Clark Law School
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The Los Angeles Ethics Commission has recommended to the city that it consider offering cash prizes to encourage voting. The idea is that anyone who turns up to vote would be entered in a lottery for cash prizes of between $1000 and $50,000. A similar idea was put to Arizona voters in a 2006 citizen’s initiative labeled the Arizona Voter Reward Act. The initiative was rejected by 67 percent of the voters.

Fewer than 40 percent of Arizona’s voters turned out in that 2006 election. In the 2012 L.A. mayoral election, only 23 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. Supporters of voter incentive schemes like the L.A. and Arizona proposals contend that such low voter turnout rates demonstrate that something like cash prizes is needed if our democracy is to survive. But the Arizona voters were right to reject the idea. Indeed, if our democracy is to survive we need to resist all such efforts to entice disinterested voters to the polls.

In some parts of the world, voting is compulsory. To our good fortune, the United States has never embraced mandatory voting, and the reasons for not requiring people to vote also condemn the idea of enticing people to vote with prizes and other incentives unrelated to the substance of elections. Elections are about selecting the best candidates for public office, resolving public policy issues and sometimes amending our constitutions. Cash prizes are about private gain, just as compulsory voting is about avoiding a personal fine or other penalty. A person who will not take the trouble to vote without the threat of a fine or the possibility of winning a prize is unlikely to be informed or to care much about the important matters resolved in elections.

Financial incentives to vote are like paying your kids to help out around the house or rewarding them with concert tickets for engaging in public service. The message is not that every individual has a responsibility to the family and community, but rather that family and community owe them something if they agree to help out.

The idea of bribing people to vote is part and parcel of a broader effort to increase voter turnout by making it easier. In my state of Oregon we have vote by mail, an idea other states have adopted either explicitly or by eliminating any real standards for absentee voting. The federal Motor Voter Act, passed in 1993, makes voter registration easier by requiring driver license and other government agencies to offer to register voters, including many who would not take the initiative themselves. Same day voter registration laws make it even easier to get on the rolls of eligible voters.

One who objects to such efforts to expand the voter rolls and to make voting easier is inevitably accused of seeking to prevent some people from voting or, worse yet, of being a racist. But if we are serious about democratic government we should understand and appreciate that it is about more than growing voter registration and increasing voter turnout. The success of democratic government depends not on everyone’s mere participation but on a critical mass accepting responsibility for the burdens of governance. That it is not and will never be everyone’s priority should not concern us.

It is reasonable to surmise that 67 percent of those Arizona voters who bothered to turnout for the 2006 election rejected the Voter Reward Act because they view voting as a civic responsibility for which one prepares oneself. Those who must be enticed to the polls, presumably including some who voted for the initiative in hopes of possible future cash prizes, have demonstrated by not voting that they don’t care, and if they don’t care they are unlikely to cast an informed ballot. It is difficult to imagine why the concerned and informed citizens of Los Angeles would choose to effectively bribe their uninformed and uncaring fellow citizens to vote.

What we can imagine concerned and informed citizens choosing to do, and what, in fact they do do everywhere in this country, is encourage their fellow citizens to vote by informing them about the candidates and issues of the day. Rather than offering case prizes to encourage voting when simple persuasion fails, we should be grateful that those who take no interest stay home on election day.