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Defibrillating Democracy

What they’re saying about our plan for a $10,000 voter lottery on election day

At Love Park yesterday, we held a press conference—along with Felicia Harris of Influencing Action Movement—to announce our plan to get citizens to vote by giving one random voter $10,000, courtesy of the Pamela and Ajay Raju Foundation. In making the announcement, we used a particularly telling visual aid: A chart reflecting the steep drop in voter turnout over the last 50 years in mayoral general elections. It’s stunning; in 1991, 61 percent of registered Philadelphians showed up at the polls to elect Ed Rendell mayor—even when it was a foregone conclusion that he was going to win the election. By 2007, only 29 percent of registered Philadelphians showed up at the polls to elect Michael Nutter mayor—even when it was a foregone conclusion that he was going to win the election.

It was stark evidence that democracy is on life support in the city where it was born. As David Thornburgh of the Committee of 70 tweeted, we need to “defibrillate the heart of democracy.”

We brought together two former rivals to support the idea.

“Voter turnout in Philadelphia has become catastrophic,” said Sam Katz. “Desperate times call for desperate measures.”

Sam Katz (left) and John Street.
Sam Katz and John Street (in helmet!)

Katz’s close friend and former rival, Mayor John Street, agreed, saying we need a conversation about innovative ways to reignite civic participation. “This program is a great way to start,” he said. (By the way, how cool is John Street? The dude approached the podium with his bike helmet on. “Mr. Mayor, I don’t know if Barbara would want you wearing your helmet,” I said, referring to Barbara Grant, his excellent longtime communications aide. “Barbara wouldn’t want the mayor wearing his helmet,” he said, smiling slightly. “I’m not the mayor.”)

As Street suggests, that’s precisely what our voter lottery is—a start. It’s not an isolated case; everything we do here is directed toward stimulating more civic engagement.

For the record, increasing voter turnout and driving up the number of informed voters aren’t mutually exclusive from our standpoint—along with Committee of 70, we’re also hosting a debate Tuesday night featuring Council’s minority-party seat candidates in a unique format: No moderator, no rules. We’re partnering with a bunch of other groups on Voter Education Week, and we’ve created the Philadelphia Citizen ballot at Crowdpac.com, so voters can read up on the candidates and fill out their own ballot. We’ve chronicled other ideas—from mandatory voting to cool polling place signage—and, moving forward, we’ll be brainstorming and developing some longterm solutions.

There are amazing things happening in Philadelphia these days, but just imagine how world-class we’d be if all our citizens thought their vote could make a difference. In Los Angeles, where a voter won $25,000 in a local school board election, organizer Antonio Gonzalez reports that, on election day, the district had carloads of young men pulling up to the polls at the last minute, breathlessly asking if they could still cast a vote and win $25,000. In that experiment, turnout nearly doubled among those who knew about the opportunity. Like Gonzalez, we believe that the ends justify the means when it’s for a good cause. Of course, not everyone agrees.

For the record, increasing voter turnout and driving up the number of informed voters aren’t mutually exclusive from our standpoint. We’ve chronicled other ideas and, moving forward, we’ll be brainstorming and developing some longterm solutions.

Here’s what a few other people are saying about our voter lottery:

Patrick Kerkstra, at Citified: “Let’s call it what is is: a bribe. And not even a big one. It’s crass, it’s insulting.”

Shannon Wink, BillyPenn, via Twitter: “I am disgusted and embarrassed to have this associated with our city.”

Nick Marzano, Young Involved Philadelphia president, via Twitter: “And the gloves are off. Platt and friends are cutting out the campaign ad middlemen and going straight to voters.”

Stu Bykofsky, The Daily News: “I will vote because I always vote, not because of the cash inducement (but I’ll keep it if I win it).”

Philadelphia Voter turnout. Data via CityLab
Philadelphia voter turnout. Data via CityLab

Do you have any ideas about how to reinvigorate the electorate? We’re open and interested in your solutions. Let us know at vote@thephiladelphiacitizen.org.

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