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Arizona man proposes lottery to increase voter turnout

Apr 9, 2006, 8:03 am

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Cast a vote, win a million.

If an Arizona man has his way, every person who votes in his state will automatically have his or her name entered in a in draw to win $1 million. Mark Osterloh, an Arizona physician and attorney, is proposing a state law that would act as an incentive to increase voter turnout.

The long-time advocate of electoral policy reform says the idea is a variation on a highly successful law in Australia, under which citizens who fail to vote are fined.

Such a penalty would be unconstitutional in the United States, since freedom of speech includes the freedom not to speak. But Osterloh believes his incentive-based system could be just as effective.

Currently, only one in four Arizona residents exercise the right to vote.

"Who do you know that doesn't want to be an millionaire?" asks Osterloh. "People tell me, 'Darn right, I'll start voting for that.'"

Osterloh is in the process of securing the 122,612 signatures he needs to land his proposal on November's election ballot. If voters say yes, his idea will become state law and, every two years, a million greenbacks will be awarded at random to an Arizona voter.

The prize will come from the Arizona Lottery's unclaimed money pool.

Osterloh maintains that the current electoral system is out of whack with the spirit of a capitalist society. As it stands, the rewards associated with voting are too convoluted to garner widespread participation. Voting - like studying for a school exam or working overtime - needs to present a more immediate and obvious benefit, Osterloh says.

"Our whole capitalist economy is based on the idea of incentives. Capitalism won out over communism because we have incentives built into our system."

But isn't this a bastardization of the democratic process? Shouldn't voters go to the polls out of a sense of duty, rather than in hopes of hitting the jackpot?

Osterloh reminds us that incentive-laden systems are consistent with the Christian paradigm.

"God says, 'Do what you're supposed to do, and I will reward you with eternal life in heaven,'" he argues. "That's what we're saying: 'Do what you're supposed to do and vote, and we will reward you with a chance to be a millionaire.'

"If incentives are good enough for God, they're good enough for the voters of Arizona."

Built into his proposal is a clever clause that would activate the lottery retroactively to the 2006 election, the one in which the proposal is on the ballot. It's an incentive to activate the incentive.

"We're going to tell everybody, 'Look, you better hurry and register and vote if you want to win that first million,'" says Osterloh. "So, you get a big increase in voters.

"By the time they go to a ballot box, they'll already know the process works."

For Osterloh, who ran unsuccessfully as the Democratic candidate for governor of Arizona in 2002, this labour of love is the latest in a string of initiatives designed to clean up the electoral process. He was a co-author of a law that made Arizona one of the few states where it's illegal for candidates to accept campaign contributions from the private sector.

"That way, you don't own anyone any favours when you're get into office," he says. "You're only there to represent the public, not campaign contributors."

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