Incentives to vote: A trivial carrot or a reliable solution for increasing voting turnout?

by Wael Abdel Hamid // Published December 9, 2010
i voted

For those who find compulsory voting too authoritarian of a method to increase voter turnout, a more liberal alternative of incentive voting might sound appealing. Indeed, many find rewards more palatable than punishment.  Moreover, there is no stigmatizing of non-voters; if someone decides to stay at home, it is obviously their loss. Basically, the carrot tastes better than the stick. However, would such an incentive-based system work in the United States -- and be politically palatable? 


Despite lower voter turnout than other countries - -particularly in elections such as the recent mid-term elections, when barely four in ten eligible voters participated in elections for every U.S. House member, a third of the Senate and most governors --, Election Day is still an important event in the United States.  During the midterms, as a French citizen viewing my first American election in the country, it was apparent to me that political participation was a crucial topic for many people.  From the media to fast food chains, the call to vote was on everyone’s lips. 


Chick-fil-A restaurants offered a free chicken sandwich for anyone able to show then their “I voted” sticker.  Some Krispy Kreme locations gave voters a star-shaped donut.  Ben & Jerry’s and Starbucks also provided freebies to their civic customers.  One Virginian democratic organization (the Arlington Young democrats) even was offering beers. However, despite being good intentioned, consciously or not, they were all violating an election law which does not allow any rewards for voting.  The only way these events could be legalized is if they opened them up to voters and non-voters (which in some cases they did). It is impossible to measure how many free chicken sandwiches or donuts actually inspired citizens to go out in vote, but it does raise the question of what effect a more legal and institutionalized incentive system might have.


In 2006, Mark Osterloh spearheaded a ballot initiative to create a lottery system in Arizona for those who vote. According to the plan if you voted you would be entered into a lottery contest where one voter would be randomly chosen to win a million dollars.  This measure was not adopted, but the concept is significant to understand the benefits and dangers of incentive voting. 


Positively, such a plan would have likely attracted new voters who are not persuaded by other electoral reforms such as easier voter registration.  On the other hand, this idea can be viewed as slightly backwards.  Instead of increasing the value of civic participation, people are voting only because they could possibly win a lottery. Is it really good for the country to have people such as that participating in the electoral process? Picking a candidate is not the same thing as buying a Powerball ticket.


Moreover, only one lucky voter truly wins the reward. Some other incentives could be more inclusive.  One possibility is making voting a tax deductible action. As I had already written in my blog post about compulsory voting borrowing Arend Lijphart’s argument, voting can be considered a way to feed civic economy as taxes are obviously a means to increase the real economy. Why not make this comparison more literal? You are helping one economy so why not get a discount in the other? Combined, these actions could form a reliable solution for both increasing electoral participation and educating new generation about the value of democracy. Children would learn voting is as important as paying taxes to make the society in which they are living a better place.  And of course a deduction could be seen as appropriate in that voting often requires at least some economic sacrifice, such as time away from work and transportation costs, let alone the time we hope voters are taking to prepare to vote in their interests and that of their community.


The incentive to vote could be even smaller than a tax deduction, though.  Even holding nonpartisan parties by polling stations have been shown to increase turnout.  Just think about when you’ve gotten a sticker that says “I Voted” -- did it make you feel a little better for the experience?


On the other hand, even though these incentives are more realistic, they are still imperfect. Rewards shift the duty of voting to job you need to get paid for. Incentives could be argued as trivializing the civic value of the act.  Are we ready to take the risk of potentially damaging the real meaning of voting and democracy to increase the voter turnout? Is it better for a political system to be legitimated by a large amount of voters no matter their motivations or by a few one deeply engaged in it? Just like compulsory voting, an incentive-based voting system is not black and white - -but it’s worthy of debate…