Go Vote, Win $1 Million
A group in Arizona wants to give everyone a chance to win $1 million—but only if they vote:
There’s going to be a new reason for Arizonans to go to the polls this year: They could win $1 million.
The Secretary of State’s Office certified Thursday that backers of the voter lottery plan had submitted more than enough signatures to qualify for the November ballot.
But the measure is worded in a way to actually encourage people to vote both in the primary this September as well as two months later when the actual initiative will be on the ballot. If it is approved in November, it will be retroactive: One lucky person who voted in this year’s primary and another who cast a ballot in the general election each will get $1 million.
In fact, it’s even set up so that there could be multiple winners. Mark Osterloh, who came up with the plan, said businesses are free to make donations of cash, or maybe even a new car, to encourage turnout.
The crux of the debate is not about the morality of the plan, but whether or not it creates enough of an incentive for voters to study up on the issues:
Osterloh said he believes that providing a carrot for would-be voters would increase participation in the democratic process. The Tucson physician dismissed concerns that the kind of people who would vote solely for a chance to win the lottery are likely to be ill-informed about the candidates and the issues.
“Once they decide they’re going to vote, they will study the issues and candidates,” he said. “And they will vote in their own enlightened self-interest.”
Not everyone is convinced that will occur.
Attorney General Terry Goddard said there’s an expectation that those who vote now at least review the issues, even if it’s just the day before they vote.
“The implication, at least, of a lottery contestant is they would not study at all,” he said. “That troubles me.”
The idea also bothered elected officials in some counties who are in charge of registering voters and, by extension, encouraging participation.
“We’re in this great country of ours, and now we have to give incentives to get people to vote?” asked Pima County Recorder F. Ann Rodriguez. “I think people need to reflect on what kind of society we are becoming.”
Both Steven Jens and Glenn Reynolds agree with election officials who believe that this will encourage “stupid people” to vote; quoth Jens: “Not only do they want to provide an incentive for uninformed people to vote, but it’s only a significant incentive for people who either can’t estimate expected values or are risk-seeking.”
To address the incentive issue first: this has been at the heart of a debate in political science for the past fifty years, dating back to Downs’ An Economic Theory of Democracy. Basically, in “modern” post-reform democracies like the United States, the material incentives for voting are essentially nil, due to the end of the spoils system (there are exceptions in America, primarily in urban politics, and of course vote-buying remains rampant in the developing world). The basic conclusion: if people are rational, they won’t vote.
That any democracy (with the exception of those where voting is either mandatory or “shamed”) has non-negligible numbers of voters turn out at the polls is largely due to party propaganda, which exaggerates the differences between the likely outcomes of elections (in both economic and non-economic terms), mobilization efforts by said parties, and the inculcation of civic norms. On the face of it, a monetary incentive to vote (the expected value of this one for the average Arizonan would be about 50¢; in other terms, about 10 minutes’ labor at minimum wage, which might account for the amount of time it takes to vote in an election) probably wouldn’t make that much difference either way, although it might motivate more political independents to vote, since they are rarely targeted by get-out-the-vote drives.
Which gets us to the “stupid people” question. In large part, the parties (particularly Democrats) already mobilize large populations that don’t pay much attention to the issues, but can be counted on to vote the party line. Visit any inner-city neighborhood or retirement community on Election Day, and you’ll see swarms of party workers trying to drum up as much turnout as possible—and they’re not particularly worried about how “educated on the issues” these potential voters are, so long as they go and vote for their party’s candidates.
The reality of the issue is that even most voters (much less citizens) are woefully uninformed, lacking either the capacity to understand political information or the motivation to acquire it in the first place—perhaps both. But voting isn’t all that hard—all it really requires is some vague sense that (party, candidate, or issue position) A is “better” than the other alternatives on offer, however you choose to define “better.” Rocket science it is not.
My suspicion is that Osterloh and the other proponents of this lottery may be onto something, albeit indirectly, because people are more likely to acquire information if they think they will use it, and the “voting lottery” might be enough of an incentive in the back of the voter’s head (in psychological terms, a “priming” effect) to tip him or her into watching a few minutes of a debate, listen to Hannity and/or Colmes, pay a little more attention to Jon Stewart’s jokes, or read another paragraph of an article in the newspaper. All it takes is one little piece of information to make a decision—just give the voter the incentive to do so and he or she will.
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