Paying people to vote in LA is a bad idea

It’s easy to write about people being wrong. Especially people who are wrong a lot. But it’s worth noting when someone whom you disagree with on pretty much everything makes a good point. On Saturday, conservative writer and thinker George Will did just that.

Los Angeles is thinking about increasing voter turnout by paying people who show up to vote, either via direct incentive or lottery, and George Will and I agree — this is a bad idea.

The city’s plan is everything conservatives hate: government spending combined with low-income minorities who vote. But just because Will is against something doesn’t mean that I, as a liberal, have to be for it. There are less costly, more effective ways to boost voter turnout that Los Angeles should consider before it spends more money it doesn’t have. And Will does have a point: regardless as to whether or not it’s effective, the city really can’t afford the idea.

Of course, Will used the proposal to take a few potshots at labor unions and liberals in general, and concludes by saying that there’s a negative correlation between quality and quantity when it comes to voting. I’m going to take a deep breath and ignore all of that for a moment to reiterate, from the perspective of someone who actually does want more people to vote, why Los Angeles is preparing to make a big mistake.

Support for paying voters comes from a small, but growing, body of academic literature showing that monetary incentives do, in fact, increase turnout and political sophistication.

In one study, a $25 cash incentive boosted turnout in a municipal election by 4.3 percentage points relative to the control group. Additionally, survey data from before and after a 2011 municipal election in San Francisco showed that institutional efforts to increase turnout –either by decreasing costs or increasing incentives — also increase information levels in the subset of the electorate that would not have turned out otherwise.

So, Will is wrong when he assumes that the government-sucking leeches of Los Angeles will take their $25 dollars and pick any random candidate, so long as they get their cash. As it turns out, when people transition from the ranks of nonvoters to the ranks of voters, they make some effort to become, you know, voters. Go figure.

But that doesn’t mean that paying every voter 25 dollars is the best way to make the transition.

For starters, the same body of academic literature that produced the $25-per-voter idea has also shown that social incentives are more powerful than monetary incentives when it comes to voting (and, to Will’s delight, they cost a lot less per additional voter).

Take, for example, the most powerful, totally non-implementable example: warning people that whether or not they voted would be publicized to their neighbors — and backing the claim up by publicizing their turnout history in advance of the election. That novel idea only increased turnout by 8.1 percent relative to the control group.

george-willHowever, the same study showed that the next step down the social pressure ladder, reminding voters that their turnout history is public by mailing them their turnout history before and after an election, still achieved a slightly higher percentage point increase in turnout than the $25 cash incentive, and without being nearly as intrusive.

In another study, getting voters to make a plan for voting, using questions like “Where is your polling place?” “How are you getting there?” “Do you normally vote before work?” and so on, increased turnout by 4.1 percentage points, which is similar to the most plausible versions of the monetary incentive and social pressure mailer.

There are any number of ways a city could nudge voters towards making a plan to vote, from cheap billboards to expensive TV ads to anything in between.

Throwing poll parties on Election Day — a practice that is often sponsored by local community leaders or businesses, which reduces their cost to a city should they decide to throw them — has been modeled to increase turnout by between 2.6 and 6.5 percent, depending on the expected baseline turnout.

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Participatory budgeting  something that Los Angeles feigned interest in doing back in 1999, and is only now revisiting  has been shown to improve a number of metrics that people interested in good citizenship and increased civic participation care about. The ties to voter turnout are less direct, but the costs are negligible; all the city has to do is facilitate meetings and change the way its existing budget is allocated.

Finally, the biggest institutional reform that I can’t believe more people aren’t talking about is universal (or, at the very least, same-day) voter registration, which removes the biggest barrier to entry in the voting market — a barrier that holds back millions of votes every presidential election year for absolutely no reason.

The above is by no means an exhaustive list. And even if some of the ideas won’t work, and not all of them will, the overall point is that there are so many other ways that Los Angeles can increase voter turnout before settling on the unimaginative “throw money at the problem.”

So let’s not give George Will any more excuses to be right, shall we?

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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