Voters want big ideas, not big prizes

Los Angeles is suffering from low voter turnout, very low voter turnout. Last year’s mayoral election attracted a paltry 23 per cent, down from a peak of 76 per cent in 1969. City council and school-board elections prompted even less interest, with voting percentage figures in the teens and single digits. According to the good folk at the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission, the answer to such dismal voter participation is to offer cash incentives. According to the commission, each voter who exercises his or her right to vote will be entered into a lottery with cash prizes available to the lucky winners. 

Across the USA, election officials are wringing their hands in despair at historically low turnout figures. Various techniques have been recommended for increasing participation: extended voting periods; early voting; voting by mail; voting using your smartphone; increased access to voter-registration materials; partnering with local organisations to promote the benefits of voting; and now, even the embarrassingly desperate cash incentive.

What all of these proposals fail to take into account is the real reason why people today are not voting: there is nothing much to vote for. It is the lack of engaging and compelling political ideas that is leading to low voter turnout, not an inherently apathetic electorate. This is all-too evident in the crude celebrity-politician personas that LA mayor Eric Garcetti and New York mayor Bill de Blasio have cultivated, whether it’s by talking sport with Hollywood A-listers such as Jimmy Kimmel or dodging serious debate.

Patronising suggestions such as ‘lottery tickets for voting’ degrade the dignity of voting by turning it into some sort of participatory game show. This proposal and all the other voter-engagement projects being trialled in the US and around the world show a total lack of respect and trust in the public’s ability as rational adults to make up their own minds on the important policies and political choices that confront them. What these proposals reveal is a political elite desperate for some kind of validation, for some kind of confirmation that the voting public is behind them – a confirmation that, in their view, comes from the number of voters they rack up, not the quality of their ideas. 

At a time when politicians place more importance on the physical act of voting than politics and ideologies, it is no wonder that voter turnout is so low. If politicians truly want to incentivise us to vote, it needs to be with big ideas, not big prizes.

Neil Ross is a writer based in New York.

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