In the 2012 presidential election, over 125 million votes were cast for one of two presidential candidates. President Obama was reelected with 51% of the popular vote (a little over 65 million votes). And yet in that election, only 57.5 percent of eligible citizens cast a ballot. We should take a second to note that there are countries with so called “compulsory voting” where citizens are required vote. According to the Center for Voting and Democracy, an advocacy group for electoral reform, countries with mandatory voting, such as Australia, have achieved close to 90% voter turnout in recent years. If only 57.5 percent of eligible voters vote in a presidential election year, you can imagine what happens at the midterms (like the one we will have in November). For context, turnout for the last five midterm elections has hovered between 39 and 42 percent. So despite how crucially important our right to vote is in this country, somewhere between 42 percent and 61 percent of the eligible population decides not to vote in a given election year. The problem with this low voter turnout is that it can have a major impact on the types of candidates that succeed. We have talked before about the polarization of American politics into two more extreme parties unable that are unwilling to compromise. While voter turnout isn’t entirely to blame for this, you can see how if only the most enthusiastic (and usually extreme) voters turn out to vote for candidates, its more likely that those extreme candidates win primaries and general elections.
These national turnout numbers, while incredibly low themselves, don’t reflect the even lower turnout for state and local elections. In Los Angeles, CA, for instance, only 23 percent of registered voters cast ballots in last year’s mayor election and last month a special school board election had a turnout that was below 10% according to the Los Angeles Times.
So the question is, how do we confront this problem? Los Angeles city officials came up with a pretty straightforward way to get people to the polls: incentivize people to vote (clearly civic duty just isn’t cutting it anymore).
Last month, the Los Angeles Ethics Commission voted to study using cash prizes to entice more people into voting. Voters who cast a ballot for a local election would be eligible to win as much as $100,000 (the exact amount would be worked out in a pilot program, according to commission president Nathan Hochman). But there are a couple of problems with this plan. First, providing these kinds of incentives for people to come out and vote is illegal if there is a federal candidate on the ballot, so such a cash prize could only be offered when only local and state candidates appear on the ballot.