Thursday, November 13, 2014

Increasing Voter Turnout

Last week, I voted in person for only the second time in my life. The first time, I think, was the 2004 Presidential election. I'd voted in other elections before, but always by absentee ballot - and after my moves to Chicago, New York, and Chicago again, I kept up voting in Pennsylvania because I felt my vote just mattered more as Pennsylvania presidential races were always closer in my home state.

But now that I've been back here in Chicago for a while, I felt like I had to switch over, and that's how I found myself at an Illinois polling place for the first time.

The experience was uneventful, unless you would've gotten a rise out of me trying to figure out why there were so many judge races and why most of them were candidates running unopposed. But it wasn't that inconvenient - just a couple minutes before I went to work.

It wasn't that hard for me, and so for something that seems so central to our government, it got me wondering why so few people actually care enough to do it. That, in turn, got me thinking about what the heck we could actually do to get people out there and incentivize more voting.

In trying to think about how we'd get more people to vote, I'm implying that I think everyone voting would be a good thing. That's probably not a universally accepted view, but that's my objective function (maybe there's some guy or girl out there trying to figure out how to make sure no one votes - probably the folks behind vote ID campaigns, but that's not my topic here)

So I thought - how might we get more people to vote - and would some of these tactics actually be possible?

Well - I thought it would make sense if we think of it as an equation.

Utility derived from voting - Cost of voting = 0

If that equation is set to zero, a voter would be indifferent between casting a vote and sitting at home. So, if we want to encourage more voting, we need to change at least one of those two dimensions. Let's start with the easier one:

Lowering the Cost of voting: People pay a price to cast their vote in US elections, a price in terms of their time and energy (hopefully not their dollars). So if we could engineer ways to lower that cost - people would be more likely to vote. So with that, some possibilities:

- Same-day voter registration: Oh wait, they already have this.

- Expanded voting period (early voting): Yes, the government already has this too, but why couldn't you extend it even further? Why not a full month or two when you can cast your vote? Making it more convenient would increase the turnout

- Simplify the ballots: My ballot here in Illinois was multiple pages, double-sided, and required you to fill in a line between two other lines to connect an arrow. If that sounds a bit confusing - you're absolutely right.

- Enter the digital era: Why the heck aren't we voting on apps at this point? I do all my banking and credit card stuff on my phone - I'd certainly be willing to throw my vote into the cloud too. Now lots of people don't have smartphones - but hey if you pull them out of line, you make election day that much more smooth

- Make election day a holiday: I'm not sure this would actually work, but if there are lots of folks who can't miss out on part of the workday to vote - then why not give us all an extra day off? We can stop taking off for Columbus Day or something- no one's going to miss Columbus Day. Of course, election day would need to get behind Leap Day in my order of days that should be made into national holidays, but it's totally a viable option

- My favorite, a tax credit for voting! Now I'm not actually advocating giving a tax break for voters, what I'm really advocating is throwing a tax increase on non-voters! The government knows everyone who pays taxes, and they know everyone who registers to vote, and they can figure out everyone who voted, and if it were me, I'd throw a tax increase on people who choose not to participate in the voting process (you could ensure all ballots include 'abstain' for the whiners who argue there's no good choice for them). I'd make the tax pretty big too - not in absolute terms, because that would be too regressive - but how about a 1% income tax surcharge? I bet you'd see more folks out on election day!

But what about the other side - actually improving the utility derived from voting. That's a bit trickier, but there are some options here too.

- Lengthen terms in office: This is a bit of a stretch, but stay with me. Everyone derives some level of utility from having a given candidate in office. Now, for some candidates, this utility might be hugely positive (someone who wants to declare every day Free Ice Cream Day), or it might be hugely negative (someone running on a platform of launching all cute baby ducks into the center of the sun). Well that utility would be magnified by lengthening the official's term in office. If Candidate Ice Cream was going to get 4 years instead of 2, you'd get MORE value from voting him into office.

- Pay the voters: You want someone to show up to a meeting in corporate america, throw in a free lunch - you'll get people who weren't even invited. Same concept would apply to voting. Put a more immediate incentive out there (rather than vague ideas of policy improvements), and people might actually show up. On a small scale, that could be the cookie they give to blood donors. On a bigger scale, it could be the same pay you give to jurors (which I assume is ridiculously small). In a theoretical world where we pay every voter $1000 - can you imagine anyone staying at home? I'm not saying we have to go that far - but compensation to encourage voting would, in my mind, be a totally viable option for consideration. (btw - of course cutting people a check for voting is a bit unseemly...George Washington rolling over in his grave and what not...but a more amenable solution might just be creating a voters-only lottery. You take money donated/put towards various get out the vote campaigns and create a massive lottery prize, like one of those crazy powerball drawings. Everyone who actually votes, their name gets thrown into the hat. If all the states can run lottery campaigns for themselves, why not do something similar to actually drive some civic participation?)

- Structurally reform legislatures such that voters will actually see some significant change and not just the absurd status-quo where it's all money-backed interests and nothing gets done: That's probably the least likely of any of these!

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