It’s local election time, which means you have a pretty good chance to pocket some extra cash just for doing your civic duty. For the third time in our short history, The Philadelphia Citizen—a nonprofit, nonpartisan media entity I co-founded five years ago to help defibrillate democracy in the American city where it was born—will be trying to jumpstart turnout by literally making it pay to vote.
We will randomly pick three Philadelphia voters — one at a polling place on election day, and, once the election is certified, two who voted by mail — and give them each $1,000 respectively, with no strings attached. We’re looking at another low turnout off-year election and our goal is to try and incentivize voting. Yes, this is legal. (We checked.) No, we don’t think doing your civic duty should be solely about the possibility of making a buck (or even 1,000 of them).
We’ve done this twice before: In the 2015 general election, after randomly selecting a polling place and time, we gave $10,000 to South Philly crossing guard Bridget Conroy-Varnis. In the 2017 primary, we did it again, awarding $5,000 to a very surprised North Philly resident, Amber Kipp.
We’ve heard the complaints surrounding our voting lottery experiment. “Let’s call it what it is: A bribe,” one critic complained, arguing that we’re cheapening democracy and encouraging “low information” voters to turn out.
Gimmicky? You bet. But it’s a stunt in service of a greater good. For we are in a crisis of local participation. Yes, we’re coming off of a presidential election that saw 66% of registered Philadelphians cast their ballots — an all-time high. But this is an off-year election, where turnout is traditionally anemic. Four years ago, for instance, in a competitive primary for district attorney, all of 18% of our fellow citizens made their voices heard. Four years before that, it was 12%.
“I’m not sure luring people to the polls with the possibility of a financial windfall is the ultimate answer,” former Mayor and Governor Ed Rendell said about our lottery in 2015. “But I support anything that can turn the tide on this issue.”
And that’s the point. Democracy should be its own reward, but our democracy is failing at least in part because we don’t use it, and maybe a monetary incentive is one way to reinvigorate it. In our previous lotteries, pre- and post-election surveys conducted by Emerson College and Statisticians Without Borders found that, among the 30% of the electorate who knew of The Citizen voting lottery, turnout went up about 5%.
We’re not saying that this is the solution to our voting woes. That’s why we also report on systemic reforms like open primaries, ranked choice voting, and making election day a federal holiday. And it’s why we ask common sense questions, like: Why do we vote on a weekday, when people have to work? Why not over a weekend? Or during the course of a week? I do my banking online, why not my voting?
But if we just wait for a legislative body to do something smart, we may be here a bit. The Citizen Voter Lottery is really a reminder that citizenship is not a spectator sport, and that it’s on all of us to do our part. And I’ve got three grand burning a hole in my pocket to get you to do yours. See you at the polls.
Larry Platt is the former editor of Philadelphia magazine and Philadelphia Daily News and the co-founder of The Philadelphia Citizen.