On Election Day next week, I will do my best Ed McMahon impersonation. I will show up at one of the city’s 1,700 polling places — randomly chosen via a computer program—bearing an oversized check in the amount of $5,000. At a certain time — also randomly chosen—I will bestow said check on an unsuspecting voter.
Yes, that’s right; this primary day, and again in November on Election Day, you can win $5,000 for just showing up and doing your civic duty. Which far too few of you do.
This will be the second time the Philadelphia Citizen — a nonprofit, nonpartisan media entity I co-founded two years ago with the goal of defibrillating democracy in the American city where it was born — has made such an award. On Election Day in 2015, South Philly crossing guard Bridget Conroy-Varnis won $10,000 when she exited the voting booth. Again this year, the voting lottery is made possible by a grant from the Pamela + Ajay Raju Foundation.
We’ve heard the complaints surrounding this experiment — and we get them. That we’re cheapening democracy. (“Let’s call it what it is: A bribe,” one critic wailed.) That we’re encouraging “low information” voters to turn out, simply to try to score a financial windfall. That this is little more than a publicity stunt, a gimmick.
Well, it is a bit of a stunt — but one designed to call attention to a serious civic crisis. In the last mayoral election, only 25 percent of registered voters came out to the polls, and that was a big local race, which included all of the City Council seats. In 2013, the last time there was a race for district attorney, only 11.4 percent of eligible Philadelphians voted — in an election that gave us the second term of now-disgraced Seth Williams. Which raises the question: How’s low turnout been working out for us?
Nationally, turnout in the last non-presidential federal election in 2014 was only 36 percent — the lowest since World War II. Last November, Hillary Clinton lost Pennsylvania by only 46,000 votes out of more than 5 million cast. In that race, 64 percent of eligible Philadelphians voted, less than in both 2008 and 2012.
“I’m not sure luring people to the polls with the possibility of a financial windfall is the ultimate answer,” former Mayor and Gov. 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 because we don’t use it, and a monetary incentive is one way to reinvigorate it. According to a 2015 pre- and post-election survey conducted by Emerson College and Statisticians Without Borders, among the 30 percent of the electorate who knew of The Citizen voting lottery, turnout was up 5 percentage points. If every voter in the city had known about it, that would have amounted to 50,000 additional votes cast in the election — enough (as we saw with the presidential race) to sway an election.
We’re not saying that this is the solution to our voting woes. That’s why we’ve also produced the Citizen Election Reform Guide, presenting systemic solutions beyond the lottery to increase turnout, reforms such as open primary voting — which would permit independents to finally have a voice in our contested primaries — and ranked choice voting, which would have kept Donald Trump from winning the Republican nomination. In the rush of our daily he said/she said politics, the way we do elections in America has rarely been held up to inspection. Why, after all, do we vote on a Tuesday? Why not over a weekend? Or during the course of a week? I do my banking online, why not my voting?
In short, the Citizen Voter Lottery is a reminder that citizenship is not a spectator sport, and it’s up to us to make our politics better. Let’s channel the spirit of Sen. Gladys Pyle from South Dakota, the first woman elected to the United States Senate in 1938. She was outspoken and unafraid — two qualities every citizen should aspire to. Ol’ Gladys was once asked what citizenship meant to her:
“The Greek word for idiot, literally translated, means one who does not participate in politics,” she said. “That sums up my conviction on the subject.”
So c’mon, Philly. Let’s agree not to be idiots. And show up to the polls. You just may see me there, carting around an oversized check that could have your name on it.
Larry Platt, the former editor of Philadelphia Magazine and the Daily News, is co-founder and editor of the Philadelphia Citizen.