There are a lot of good reasons to vote this spring in the municipal primary—not least of which is that you will be deciding who wins the Democratic nomination for district attorney, and therefore (effectively) who will serve as the city’s chief prosecutor for the next four years. It is one of the most important decisions for our city that you will make this year.
But if that’s not enough, we have another: You could win $1,000, just for casting a ballot by mail before, or in person on, May 18, through The Philadelphia Citizen’s 2021 Municipal Primary Voter Lottery. (See here for rules and regulations.)
We’ve done this twice before: In the 2015 general election, we gave $10,000 to South Philly crossing guard Bridget Conroy-Varnis. In the 2017 primary, we awarded $5,000 to North Philly resident Amber Kipp. Both women won after The Citizen randomly selected a polling place and time, and picked whomever emerged from the poll at that time on Election Day.
More on voting in the 2021 primary election in Philly
Yes, this is legal. (We checked.) No, we don’t think doing your civic duty should be solely about the possibility of making a buck (or even 1,000 of them). But we do believe, fervently and desperately, that we need to pull out all the stops to ensure as many Philadelphians vote this spring as possible.
We are coming off a (relative) boom year for voting: Some 750,000 Philadelphians cast a ballot in the most bitter presidential election in a generation, a turnout of 66 percent. That was higher than in any of the last 25 years, a giant step in the right direction.
But we also know what happens in what elections experts unhelpfully call “off years.” Turnout drops to levels that can only be called anemic, at best. The last time Philadelphia had a primary for district attorney the previous elected D.A., Seth Williams, had been indicted (soon to be sent to jail) on corruption charges; it was an impressively expensive race; it was a referendum on criminal justice reform. It was incredibly important.
So, you’d think hordes of Philadelphians would have made their way to the polls, right? Wrong. Just a little more than 18 percent of the eligible population voted in May 2017. And we were practically jumping for joy, given that the prior competitive D.A. primary, in 2009, had only a 12 percent turnout.
People, we have a problem. And so, we have a solution: A lottery.
We based our lottery the first year on a similar endeavor in a small Los Angeles school board district—an idea we should steal that we actually stole (with their blessing). And even we were surprised by the result: Among the 30 percent of the electorate who knew of our voter lottery, turnout was up five percent. If every voter in the city had known about it, that would have amounted to 50,000 additional votes cast—enough to sway an election, as it did in 2016, when Donald Trump won the state by 45,000 votes. (The second year, some 16 percent knew about the lottery, and around 4 percent went out to vote as a result.)
We got a lot of flack for our effort. Shannon Wink, then of Billy Penn, put it this way on Twitter in 2015: “I am disgusted and embarrassed to have this associated with our city.” We, on the other hand, are embarrassed to have such low turnout associated with our great city.
Look, maybe this year will be different. Maybe we’ll remember the incredible joy of showing up to vote in 2020, of being the city that decided the presidential election, of dancing in the streets before and after the vote.
We are coming off a year when thousands of Philadelphians flooded the streets to protest police brutality in America, when nearly 500 Philadelphians were murdered, when inequities were rampant. We showed that we care about issues of criminal justice, and safety, and fairness.
So maybe that care will translate to the polls, to choosing the next D.A., and all the judges up and down the court system here and statewide. Maybe this year voters don’t need an additional incentive. Maybe this year we can retire our voter lottery for good.
But just in case: We have $3,000 burning a hole in our (metaphorical) pockets, intended for three of our fellow Philadelphians. Could one of them be you?