Lottery won't improve voter turnout; use money to better election system


By Ryan O'Donnell
Published June 14th 2006 in Arizona Daily Star
What will happen to the voter who gets lucky enough to win $1 million under the proposed plan to turn Arizona elections into a lottery?

An initiative sponsored by Tucson physician Mark Osterloh would require state election officials to pull one ballot at random after each primary and general election, and send that voter a check for $1 million.

This person undoubtedly would feel at ease about air conditioning costs next summer. But will the winning voter feel a sense of satisfaction for having fully participated in democracy? Will the voter have meaningful representation as a result of the vote? As long as we're gambling, I'm willing to wager the answers would be as uncertain as they've always been.

Yes, voters are failing to participate, but the reason is not lack of a big enough jackpot. Indeed, everyone already has serious money at stake. Taxes, transportation decisions, educational questions and so on have real economic impact on our lives.

Adding yet another (unlikely) economic incentive will no doubt fail as a magic-bullet solution to low voter turnout. However, while there is no magic bullet, the root of all the contributing factors is the belief that our votes don't count and don't translate into effective representation.

We will see what Arizona voters decide about this lottery experiment, but I would make a different fiscal decision. Let's invest more diversely. Instead of a lottery, here's what a million dollars could buy Arizona:

A citizen's assembly on election reform. Let's address seriously the concerns voters have that motivate them to stay away on Election Day by creating a commission of everyday citizens to ponder our electoral system and suggest improvements.

This would follow in the footsteps of British Columbia, which took a random sampling of citizens, brought in experts to discuss competing ideas, and finally brought the assembly's recommendations to the ballot.

A serious review of administration standards by the secretary of state. Maybe voting really is an economic choice. For many, hitting the polls in the morning means missing work or taking time away from caring for children. Long lines are anything but trivial to voters who have real lives to live.

The duel demands of our society — that we participate in both our democracy and our economy, should not be at odds. Early voting makes a lot of sense for these reasons.

Universal voter registration. We can't have 100 percent participation when we barely have 70 percent of eligible voters on the rolls to begin with. Arizona could lead the nation by investing in a system to automatically register its citizens.

When graduating from high school, students get a form in the mail that gets them in the Selective Service database. Surely, they could also get a voter registration card. Better yet, with this level of funding, Arizona's secretary of state could develop an automated system. The result would be clean and complete voter rolls, and a step toward bringing America in line with international norms for elections.

Are these things better than a million bucks? For some, maybe not. But I suspect that for the vast majority, an election system that is responsive to the will of the people trumps endless cruises to the Virgin Islands.

We need a democracy that serves us and the things we care about: good education for all our children, solutions for health care, transportation, jobs and housing, and all around responsive government. When voters suspect their interests are not served by voting, they stop being voters.

Let's make a different kind of investment in our democracy. Doing so would be no gamble at all.

Ryan O'Donnell is a spokesman for FairVote, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group in Washington, D.C. Write to him at ryan@fairvote.org.