Jul 18, 2006, 8:27 am
To anyone who ever said, "I wouldn't vote for that bum for a million bucks," Arizona may be calling your bluff.
A proposal to award $1 million in every general election to one lucky resident, chosen by lottery, simply for voting — no matter for whom — has qualified for the November ballot.
Mark Osterloh, a political gadfly who is behind the initiative, the Arizona Voter Reward Act, is promoting it with the slogan, "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Vote!" He collected 185,902 signatures of registered voters, far more than the 122,612 required, and last week the secretary of state certified the measure for the ballot this fall.
If the general election in 2004 is a guide, when more than 2 million people voted, the 1-in-2-million odds of winning the election lottery would be far better than the Powerball jackpot (currently about 1 in 146,107,962) but not nearly as great as dying from a lightning strike (1 in 55,928).
"People buy a lot of lottery tickets now," Mr. Osterloh said, "and the odds of winning this are much, much higher." (And most of the time there is not much lightning in Arizona.)
If some see the erosion of democracy in putting voting on the same plane as a scratch-and-win game - and some do - Mr. Osterloh sees the gimmick as the linchpin to improve voter turnout and get more people interested in politics.
In 2004, the year of a heated presidential election, 77 percent of registered voters cast ballots in Arizona, but in 2002 - the year Mr. Osterloh, a Democrat, ran for governor in what might politely be called a dark-horse campaign - it was 56 percent. Primary election turnouts are much lower.
About 60 percent of the voting-age population is registered, though that includes people who are ineligible to vote, like illegal immigrants and felons.
"Basically our government is elected by a small minority of citizens," said Mr. Osterloh, 53, a semiretired ophthalmologist who has helped write and campaign for various successful ballot initiatives.
Curtis Gans, director of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate in Washington, said the idea of a voter lottery had come up in other states, but he could not recall any moving forward with it. And he's glad.
"People should not go vote because they might win a lottery," Mr. Gans said. "We need to rekindle the religion of civic duty, and that is a hard job, but we should not make voting crassly commercial."
Editorial writers, bloggers and others have panned the idea as bribery and say it may draw people simply trying to cash in without studying candidates or issues.
"Bribing people to vote is a superficial approach that will have no beneficial outcome to the process, except to make some people feel good that the turnout numbers are higher," said an editorial in The Yuma Sun. "But higher numbers do not necessarily mean a better outcome."
The initiative calls for financing the award through unclaimed state lottery prize money, private donations and, if need be, state money. A spokeswoman for the Arizona Lottery Commission said its unclaimed prize pot fluctuated greatly, but it now stood at more than $1 million.
Mr. Osterloh said private donors could add their own incentives, like a car dealership offering a new car to a random voter.
But he may be getting ahead of himself. There is the not-so-small matter of whether such a voter lottery is legal.
Passage of the initiative would supersede a state law barring any exchange of a vote for money, legal experts agreed, but whether it would get around similar federal laws was a matter of debate.
One federal statute calls for fines or imprisonment of up to one year to anyone who "makes or offers to make an expenditure to any person, either to vote or withhold his vote, or to vote for or against any candidate; and whoever solicits, accepts, or receives any such expenditure in consideration of his vote or the withholding of his vote."
"It's clearly illegal," said Jack Chin, a professor at the University of Arizona law school who has studied voting rights issues.
"This is cute and clever, but even though it responds to a real problem, it does so in a way that threatens to degrade the process," Mr. Chin said.
But Mr. Osterloh, who has a law degree, and the lawyer who helped write the initiative, Anthony B. Ching, a former state solicitor general, said the laws were meant to stop individuals from buying or selling votes for particular candidates or parties. In this case, it would be a state-sanctioned program with a high purpose and, they add, offering the chance to win - voters opt into the program - was not the same as giving everybody money to vote.
"I don't think the federal law would cover this kind of situation," Mr. Ching said.
State political leaders so far are keeping their distance.
Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat who will also be on the November ballot as a candidate for reelection, has declined to take a position. The leaders of the State Senate and House, both Republicans, did not answer messages seeking comment.
But Mr. Osterloh presses on. He predicted the idea would spread to the two dozen states that allow citizen ballot initiatives if it was successful here.
The local chapter of We Are America, a group seeking to register Latinos to vote after large pro-immigration demonstrations last spring, plans to promote the initiative in its voter education and registration drives.
"We've certainly tried everything else, and people don't seem to turn out," said Roberto Reveles, president of the group.
And some voters are giving it serious thought.
"I'm pretty up on the issues, so I don't need it," said Beverly Winn, a grocery store clerk here. "But who wouldn't take money if they offer it?"
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