Incentives to Vote - Free Week


An Editorial

Written by Jennifer Smith

What’s your incentive to vote? Is it simply for the pleasure of exercising your rights? Is it because of an irrational fear that if you don’t vote, you have no right to complain?

An “I Voted” sticker
Photo courtesy of eliza evans

If you were of voting age in the last election, you might have been swayed by promises of sugary treats like coffee, doughnuts, or ice cream.

Though federal law deems these kinds of corporate incentives to vote illegal, freebies for flashing your “I Voted” sticker raise interesting questions about incentivizing voting.

First off, why would somebody want to vote in the first place? Does your vote even really make a difference? A staunch economist might look at the number of pivotal elections coming down to a few votes vs. the opportunity cost of your time and say “No.”

But ultimately, people don’t vote because of a pressure to “make a difference.” The act of voting gives one a cognitive sense of ownership over their government, which is something that can’t be measured by economists.

Even still, the last five presidential elections saw voter turnout hovering around 50 to 60 percent, which isn’t at all unusual given the turnout for previous elections. The 2008 elections, naturally, show a high jump in voter participation.

Percentage of voter turnout in presidential elections since 1824.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

But the number of voters actually participating in elections is still underwhelming for some, and hence, incentivized voting doesn’t seem like a terrible idea. Especially in light of how many countries have already instituted a compulsory voting system, which doesn’t seem politically palatable for the U.S.

In 2006, Mark Osterloh offered up a plan in Arizona that would create a lottery system for voters where one lucky voter could potentially win a million dollars. Some have also suggested making voting a tax-deductible action to increase civic engagement.

So is a free coffee or doughnut really such a bad thing?

Here’s a list of some of the freebies that have been offered during past elections:


Many a beer commercial has suggested that there’s nothing more American than popping open a nice cold one. Still, a Virginia Democratic organization called The Arlington Young Democrats found itself in violation of federal election law for holding an Election Day happy hour in 2010. Anyone who brought their “I Voted” sticker, proving they voted early in Virginia, got a free drink and some appetizers.

Unfortunately, The Arlington Young Democrats didn’t get the turnout they were hoping for so maybe countrywide happy hours aren’t the way to increase voter turnout.

Sex Toys

In 2008, everyone’s favorite women-owned sex toy boutique tried to get people excited about voting with a sex toy giveaway. If you stopped by the Seattle or New York store with your voter registration card, voting stub, or “word of honor,” Babeland gave you a free Silver Bullet or Maverick Sleeve.



In 2000, two Atlanta suburbs held gun raffles to get people fired up on Election Day. According to ABC News, voters exchanged their “I Voted” stickers for raffle tickets at American Classic Marksman in Norcross, Ga., or Adventure Outdoors in Smyrna, Ga.  All tickets were then placed in a bowl and one winner went home with a Benelli Super Black Eagle 12-gauge shotgun.

Bersa shotguns.
Photo Courtesy of Fredrick Giordan.

Though incentivized voting has some appeal, clearly these incentives go beyond a seemingly harmless discount. Many of the corporate giveaways, from Krispy Kreme’s free star-shaped doughnut to Chik-fil-A’s free chicken sandwich, were ultimately checked by the federal law preventing individuals and organizations from offering monetary incentives.

And with good reason, because it’s easy to see how partisan politics could become involved. What kind of voting districts might a politically active company like Chik-fil-A target for their Election Day freebie participating locations?

Ultimately, it’s up to the people to decide what their votes are worth. If fulfilling your civic duty doesn’t feel like enough, at least you get a sticker.