The Great American Election Lottery

Americans love gambling.

Your odds of winning the Powerball jackpot are just 1 in 292,000,000 (compared to 1 in ~40,000 odds of being killed by lightning). Since only half of Powerball winnings go towards prizes, we can infer that expected value is 50 cents on the dollar.

And yet, lotteries remain incredibly popular. Around half of American adults play state lotteries, and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports average spending of $834 each year on lottery tickets and betting pools.

Meanwhile, US voter turnout overs just over 50%.

Given the unreasonable popularity of lotteries, why can’t we just hand out lottery tickets with ballots?

The idea of financially motivating votes isn’t unprecedented. Australians who don’t vote are fined $15, up to $37 on continued offense.

And neither is the idea of a civic lottery. In order to cut down on tax evasion, Taiwan introduced a lottery on sales receipts in 1951, leading to a 75% increase in collected taxes. Even after increasing the payout, the Taiwan Finance Ministry today pays a mere $20 million USD in prizes.

Fans of behavioral economics may notice a similarity to the classic A Fine is a Price paper, which describes how charging parents for late daycare pickup actually aggravated the problem. The authors propose that:

When help is offered for no compensation in a moment of need, accept it with restraint. When a service is offered for a price, buy as much as you find convenient.

Accordingly, we may worry that in the context of elections, voters are currently motivated by civic duty, but would lose this motivation in favor of a purely financial one. If the lottery winnings aren’t sufficiently large, we risk crowding out incentives and actually harming turnout. Even if turnout is increased, people may vote merely for the money, and make worse or more selfish decisions than if they were voting out of civic duty.

At least with regards to the first risk, Australia has been largely successful, achieving over 90% turnout in recent elections.

Logistically, a lottery would be easier than it sounds.

Voter registration lists are public information and include each voter’s address. Even without an official lottery, any donor could decide to hold a lottery, and mail checks to a random set of addresses after the election.

Unfortunately, this is also totally illegal. U.S. Code § 597 reads:

Whoever makes or offers to make an expenditure to any person, either to vote or withhold his vote… shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two years

You could argue that retroactively paying a few random voters is different from paying a particular person to vote, but it’s still a big legal risk.

Still, 2 years isn’t the end of the world, especially since people regularly dedicate entire lifetimes to political activism.