Robert C. Pozen is a senior lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Nicco Mele is the director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.
This piece was updated at 6:46 p.m. on April 4.
Most Americans are exhausted with partisanship and want government that works and that displays a willingness to compromise. But those without a strong attachment to a political party tend not to vote regularly, contributing to greater polarization. Americans might vote in presidential elections, when about 60 percent of eligible Americans vote. Yet fewer than half vote in midterm elections, and very few vote in local elections — arguably the elections with the most direct impact on our lives.
It’s understandable that many Republicans and Democrats are dissatisfied with the state of U.S. politics. But imagine what would happen if the political middle had the incentive structure to vote in each election?
Numerous academic studies and electoral analyses show that voting is habit-forming. Once you vote, you are more likely to vote again — and again and again and again. The younger you are when you start voting, the more likely you are to continue voting regularly.
The 2018 midterms were a high-water mark for participation by young people. An astounding 31 percent of eligible voters between the ages of 18 to 29 cast a ballot on Election Day, a giant increase from their voting rate of 21 percent in 2014. But even those numbers are disturbingly low.
A few countries do have compulsory voting. Australia, for example, levies fines on any citizen who does not vote in an election. But requiring participation would be a hard sell in the United States with our traditions of political freedom and choice.
Instead, what if the government offered cash incentives to vote? Several experiments have shown that such incentives work to change voting behavior. Then-Fordham University (now Northeastern) political scientist Costas Panagopoulos has researched the impact of paying cash rewards to people who vote, conducting two separate studies in California communities in which voters were randomly assigned to receive one of two postcards: a reminder to vote or the option to receive a financial award for voting. Both studies found that an incentive of only $25 raised turnout in municipal elections by almost 5 percent.
Nonprofit organizations in Philadelphia and Los Angeles have similarly experimented with “lotteries” to incentivize voting. One lucky voter in Philadelphia won $10,000 in such a voting lottery; a different experiment in Los Angeles netted another voter a $25,000 purse. Both efforts appeared to meaningfully increase turnout in local elections.
Based on this data, it’s safe to say that incentivizing participation early could nurture a long-term pattern of regular voting. But how could such an idea be implemented? The federal government might offer a refundable tax credit to young adults who vote twice before age 30. Assuming a tax credit of $100 per young adult, even a significant increase in participation for voters under 30 would not dramatically reduce federal tax revenues — while creating a life-long habit of participation for millions of new voters.
Because both major political parties have recently voiced concerns about voter fraud and ballot access, critics would undoubtedly raise issues about verifying participation by young voters. But these issues could be addressed. For instance, Congress could subsidize qualifying state or local voting authorities if they sent a prepaid debit card to people who vote twice before they turn 30. These authorities, which have much better information on voting than federal officials, would qualify by meeting specified standards for maintaining accurate voting records.
Republicans might also object to our proposal because young voters tend to be more liberal than older ones. However, this proposal should be evaluated over the long run. If young adults start to vote regularly, their political views are likely to become more conservative as they grow older.
From the start of our country, how we vote has been a fluid process. The Constitution does not say much about the mechanics of voting. As a result, historically we’ve had a hodgepodge of approaches to voting, which vary from state to state and have changed a lot over time.
This is a fruitful area for experimentation. Cash incentives for voting will materially increase the participation rates in current elections, especially in non-presidential election years, and would help build a lifelong habit of voting among younger adults. More broadly, such incentives would send an important message to citizens of all ages — the United States puts a high value on voting in all elections.