July 18, 2006

Vote or Lose out on big money

As George notes (now he has scooped me), Arizona might have an interesting initiative on the ballot soon. There is a proposal to award $1 million dollars to a randomly selected person that votes in a general election.For the average election this is a great thing. Most people just don't think there is much at stake with their individual vote (and they are probably right, independent of everyone else's actions, it is probably irrational for me to go out and vote). This creates a free-rider problem, where even if the marginal cost of going out and voting is next to nothing, many people still can't be bothered to stop off at a polling station or fill out an absentee ballot. In these cases, encouraging people to turn out by providing a marginal private benefit that is independent of the election results is a terrific idea. It overcomes the free rider problem and could be an effective way of dealing with the grip seniors have on elections with low turnout.But, I'm not convinced this would be a great idea in heated general elections. For example, in the 2004 Presidential election where you have about 80% voter turnout, encouraging that last 20% to show up and vote, purely for selfish reasons would probably do nothing for societal utility. Although, it probably wouldn't harm it, the worst you could assume is that people would go to the polls and randomly vote for someone so they could get their chance at a million bucks. But if all such people randomly case their votes then it won't impact the winner.There is also the argument that this would somehow "commodify" voting, which would cheapen the civic virtue inherent in voting. I don't tend to care about arguments like these, but it probably could be made by Hammond pretty well.Either way, we have a society that is obsessed with getting out the vote. And if we want to do that, this is an excellent way of going about it. At least it is much better than P Diddy threatening to kill anyone who doesn't vote (although, I bet a lot more people would vote if someone that didn't vote would be randomly murdered by P Diddy).