A couple of provocative stories were in the news over the past week. The first was about the study authored by professors Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page that concluded that America was no longer a democracy in any meaningful sense. In an interview with TalkingPointsMemo, Professor Gilens summed up their research as follows:
"I'd say that contrary to what decades of political science research might lead you to believe, ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their government does in the United States. And economic elites and interest groups, especially those representing business, have a substantial degree of influence. Government policy-making over the last few decades reflects the preferences of those groups -- of economic elites and of organized interests."
There are lots of reasons for the domination of economic elites and organized interests. Economist Mancur Olson, for example, argued in the mid-1960s that small elites with a strong economic or personal interest in a policy inevitably have more influence than a larger group who had a collective, but weaker, interest in a policy outcome. Add up the various elites and policy outcomes and you inevitably have a nation governed as an oligarchy. One possible counterbalance to the power of the elites might be widespread public participation in elections -- something that is sorely lacking in America.
We all know that voter participation is abysmal, especially in state and local elections. In Los Angeles in 2013, for example, local elections for the mayor, city council and school board of the nation's second largest city was a little over 15 percent, and in a special school board election, the turnout was 8 percent. Voter participation in the United States as a whole is much lower than other nations. India, for example, had voter turnout of 66 percent in recent elections -- a total of 540 million people. Some nations, such as Australia, which has a 90 percent turnout rate, have compulsory voting (a $20 fine is levied on non-voters) but generally these penalties are not enforced.
After years of distressingly low turnout, the Los Angeles Ethics Commission recently voted unanimously to recommend lottery-type cash prizes for residents who voted. "Maybe it's $25,000 maybe it's $50,000," said Ethics Commission President Nathan Hochman. "That's where the pilot program comes in -- to figure out what ... number and amount of prizes would actually get people to the voting box."
Proposals like this have been considered in other states, and have been generally met with derision. It seems somehow un-American to offer citizens the possibility of cash prizes in return for voting. And some observers have argued that uninformed voters will cast their ballots simply for the chance to win some money. My response is "So what?" We have lotteries to fund schools and other worthy causes. What could be more important than voting? Especially when our nation is turning away from real democracy. It's not like the government is forcing people to vote. Instead of using the stick of fines or other penalties, it is offering a carrot to those who want to take it.
It's true that the progressive movement, i.e. Democrats, would stand to benefit more from a higher turnout since minorities and young people vote at lower rates than older, white citizens. But simply because the result would mean greater participation by underrepresented citizens doesn't make it bad. It is tough to argue that more citizen participation in a democracy is harmful, no matter how it is achieved. Maybe it's worth a try.