Philly Citizen to Award $10,000 to Randomly Selected Philly Voter

This is not satire. This is real life.

Screenshot 2015-10-22 11.10.33

So says the Philadelphia Citizen. And they mean it literally. | Image a screenshot of Citizen story announcing its new lottery.

So … it’s come to this.

The newly re-launched Philadelphia Citizen will pay $10,000 to a randomly selected Philadelphian who makes the herculean effort of spending two minutes in a voting booth on Election Day, which is Tuesday, November 3.

The Citizen is calling it a lottery. But let’s call it what is is: a bribe. And not even a big one. It’s crass, it’s insulting.

It’s also a gimmick, of course. A relatively inexpensive, attention-grabbing stunt for a new outlet that’s got some interesting ideas, but not yet a whole lot of readers.

Let’s set all that aside. Might it actually work? Is there actual merit to the idea of compensating voters (or a single voter, in this case) for doing what we’ve long been taught is a basic civic duty?

It’s an inescapable, depressing fact that voter turnout is in alarming decline in Philadelphia. Only 27 percent of registered Democrats voted in last May’s primary election. Given the dominance of Democrats in this city, that effectively means that just 234,000 voters determined who would lead a city of 1.55 million people.

So, do “desperate times call for desperate measures,” as the Citizen puts it?

That was the thinking in Los Angeles, where a $25,000 prize was offered by a voter engagement non-profit in a July school board election. It wasn’t a citywide lottery; the award was limited to a single district. The lottery may have slightly increased turnout in that district, according to this Los Angeles Times story, but the boost was nowhere near as significant, however, as the Citizen’s story implies.

This remains very much an untested idea.

And while the notion of somehow compensating voters for showing up to the polls isn’t an idea that’s widely discussed, it’s not as fringe a concept as you might assume. In that Times story, for instance, Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the School of Law at UC Irvine, said:

“The ideal is that people would vote out of a sense of civic duty. But it often does not work out that way…. This is a clever way to boost turnout. The interesting question is whether it will work.”

Chemerinsky is one of the nation’s foremost scholars on constitutional law. And back in April, Bloomberg View columnist Stephen Carter took the concept further, calling for direct payments to voters. Wrote Carter:

Social scientists have understood for some time that cash payments alter people’s incentives, sometimes drastically. For example, paying people money to quit smoking greatly enhances the chances of success. Paying students to keep a certain grade-point average seems to make a difference. Paying teenage girls not to get pregnant greatly decreases the chance that they’ll get pregnant.

These are all behavioral changes we want to encourage. Why not treat voting the same way? It’s likely to work. An experiment conducted by Fordham political scientist Costas Panagopoulos found that paying cash rewards of $25 raised turnout in a municipal election from 14.9 percent to 19.2 percent — no small increase.

Wait, you might be thinking, is any of this actually legal? Maybe. Absolutely not. It depends.

Pennsylvania law clearly prohibits compensating voters for casting their ballots for a particular candidate or issue. Election law specialist and sometime Citified contributing columnist Adam Bonin highlights the relevant passage in the tweet below.

But the Citizen isn’t offering the prize only to, say, Jim Kenney voters. It’s offering the prize for the act of voting itself. Which makes it ok? Maybe?

Now Federal law is a different matter altogether. It clearly prohibits compensating voters not just for voting a particular way, but for voting at all. There are no federal candidates on the ballot in this November’s election, however, so federal election law would not apply to this election.

But it will apply anytime a federal candidate is on the ballot. Which really serves only to highlight just how gimmicky this lottery idea is. Unless federal law were to change, a lottery could only be in play when federal candidates aren’t on the ballot — and they very often are.

Then there’s the matter of the prize itself. At just $10,000, the prize — which is being made available by the Pamela and Ajay Raju Foundation — doesn’t seem nearly big enough to be a valid test of the prospective impact of a lottery on turnout (Ajay Raju is a co-founder and principal funder of the Citizen). If you really want to see if a lottery could make a difference, Ajay, make it $1 million. And make sure the entire city hears about it.