Friday, March 02, 2007

Voting as Lotto

Low-income workers and minorities vote in much lower numbers than higher paid, white citizens. People who are working hard to make ends meet and pay the bills often don't find their way to the polls on election days.

Beyond this, there is a cynicism among the poor about the viability and efficacy of the entire political process. A "what difference will my vote make?" attitude seems more prevalent among lower wage earners than among those who earn more for their work.

In Dallas it is certainly true that persons living in lower income neighborhoods don't turn out to vote like people who reside in more upscale parts of our city. I know that is true in my state house district. People living west of Central Expressway in the Park Cities part of our district vote at a 75 to 90% clip in every election. On my side of the district we do good to turn out 40% in even the most active precincts.

Now comes Mark Osterloh with one of the "bright ideas" for 2006, at least as determined by the annual review conducted by The New York Times Magazine (Rebecca Skloot, page 34, December 10, 2006).

Here's how his idea would work.

Each person who casts a vote would also be entered into a special state lottery in Osterloh's home state, Arizona. At the conclusion of each state election one person would be selected to win $1 million. The payout would come from the state's unclaimed lottery fund.

The odds are interesting when compared to other state and regional games of chance. If 2 million Arizonans vote, as they did in 2004, in the next national election, the odds of winning would be 1 in 2 million, as compared to 1 in 146 million for recent Powerball games!

With what remained in the unclaimed gaming fund, Osterloh would award 1,700 prizes of $1,000 each. Such a move increases the odds of winning something to 1 in 2,500.

Osterloh believes that odds like these, especially for low-income workers, would increase voter turnout, while costing voters nothing.

Critics say that the idea "degrades democracy."

Osterloh is amused.

"Excuse me?" he says. "Getting all those people to vote will degrade democracy? Isn't that the definition of democracy?"

Osterloh is so serious about his idea that he got it on the ballot in Arizona last November.

Voters didn't approve it.

As the Times Magazine notes, "It is quite possible. . .that his target audience didn't show up to vote."

What do you think?


Anonymous said...

I don't know. Sometimes I think that the ones who do show up - for anything -are the ones who should show up. If anyone doesn't (a) know enough or (b) care enough to vote "just because" maybe they shouldn't be voting. We shouldn't have to drag or bribe people to the polls.

Daniel Gray said...

Now I remember having seen that on the ballot for Arizona. I thought it was weird at the time. I guess I might be bothered by the idea that this would cheapen some people's focus on the candidates, but I think it would provide a great incentive for people to be more involved and concerned with voting. Now if you could just vote multiple times to increase your chance of winning (or for your candidate). :)

Anon - I don't think that any one income level has a monopoly on who "knows enough" to vote. And I think a lot of low income people "care" about politics, but it's a lot easier for someone who works on salary to take time off and vote than for someone who works an hourly wage.

bpb said...

I am a government employee. I get paid time to vote. We can come in 3 hrs. late or leave 3 hrs. early, whichever is the least amount of time away. I normally come in late. The time is relative to the polls' opening and closing times. When the polls open at 7 a.m., I can't be later than 10 a.m. coming into work. A lot of people I know - the "regular" workers - don't have this priviledge. A dear friend of ours works for DHL. He has to be work at 6:30 a.m. and many afternoons doesn't get off until 7 p.m. Where is there time built in for him to vote? Especially when he resides in one town, but commutes to a nearby city to work? He has to vote absentee. This also takes time and effort. Plain and simple, it's just not easy for a lot of working people to vote. I think that's the first problem that should be worked - make it a priority for EVERYONE to be afforded the ability to vote, without having to miss part of his paycheck.

dmowen said...

Ideas to increase voter turnout are commendable. Efforts need to be made to make voting more accesible for all people. I kind of agree with anonymous though in that we shouldn't bribe people to vote. The motivation should be to participate in the democratic process, not to win big money. If the problem of low voter turnout is one of access, we should address issues of access. I would prefer to see election day be made a national holiday and let eveyone have at least a half day off so they could go vote. Alternatively, setting up polling places in or near places where lots of people work and allowing people to vote at any polling location instead of just their assigned location would be helpful. I also agree that fostering a more informed citizenship is better for democracy than just increasing the numbers that vote. It is very difficult to get good information on reasons to vote for a candidate in any race smaller than a presidential or gubernatorial election. I tried to read up on the candidates for this past election and there were still several judicial races that I didn't vote in because I had never heard of either candidate and I don't believe in strait ticket voting. Healthy democracy would be better achieved through educating the electorate and increasing access than by merely increasing voter turnout through economic incentives.

Fajita said...

Allow me to go one step further. For every dollar raised for political campaigns, one dollar should be raised to go into the voter lottery fund.

Between Obama and Clinton, the fund would be nearly a quarter of a billion dollars already. There is no doubt in my mind that there would be a billion to disperse amongst the voting faithful when all is said and done.

Besides presidential campaigns, think about senate and house elections. Shoot, even in off years there would be a lot of cash to go around.

This one dollar for campaigns means one dollar to the people idea would apply to Swift Boaters and Move On as well.

Yo got your campaign finance reform right here.

John Greenan said...

I think it's a good idea, but I think we need to go one step further. Australia fines anybody that doesn't vote--let's add both a carrot and a stick and not leave it up to chance.

$100 dollar tax credit if you vote and a $100 fine if you don't.

Charles said...

I agree we need to make voting more accessible - there's no reason not to vote on a Saturday, is there? Or require voting time just like employers have to allow jury duty time. And I've found absentee-voting to be pretty convenient - it just requires a little effort.

My biggest problem with the voting lotto is that it legitimizes the lottery, which is a tax on the mathematically-challenged and sucks far more money from the poor than it gives (don't even get me started on Texas' lottery "going to education"). Also, while the current voting population is heavily skewed, I'm not sure I want people who are just looking for a check voting for whoever's name is longest or a straight-party vote.

Let's make it more accessible, and make sure everyone who wants to will be able to cast their vote, but let's not encourage people who could care less to interfere with the system.

John Greenan said...

I think a straight party vote is usually the only intelligent choice to make. With very rare occasions, in local votes, one may actually know the candidate well enough to have an informed opinion about them.

Most of the time, if you think you're voting for "the candidate", then you're only voting for the package their PR people put out for you. There isn't any way for the overwhelming number of us to know who a candidate really is (thus: the compassionate conservative).

At least the parties divide the candidates into a broad, but fairly reliable, sets of policies that they will support.

I think that's the best you can hope to do most of the time.

Charles said...


Isn't the party's PR package just as distant from reality as a candidates? I hear people saying Republicans are for fiscal responsibility, and that Democrats are for helping the less fortunate, yet I haven't seen either party formulate policies that do anything but funnel money to their donors.

There are exceptions where either one follows through on its party-level promises, but that's even rarer than a candidate who's honest in their marketing.

Basically, I believe any honesty/predictability/accountability is more likely to happen at an individual level than the party machinery.

John Greenan said...

That's a matter of perception, Charles. But, in general, Democrats will support an incrase in the minimum wage, freedom to choose, gun control, tighter environmental controls, more stringent antitrust enforcement, more active EEOC enforcement, more expansive anti-poverty programs, affirmative action, a smaller defense budget, a more progessive tax system, gun control--and Republicans will oppose those same measures.

I believe, whatever others may believe, that the party system, although imperfect, better reflects the interests of the voters than any other measure.