Jul 19, 2006

Gambling for Votes

Heard recently about a ballot initiative in Arizona that would give one lucky voter a million dollars in a lottery system. I have heard about voting lotteries before, but it's an interesting idea being pushed right now. I can see the argument - get more people to the polls because turn-out in the United States is ridiculously low for a country that pushes democracy as the best form of representative government.

The idea is that once they commit to voting, they'll start looking at the issues and thinking about the candidates rather than just blindly vote to get in the running for the money. But money has been seen by many as a corrupting force that will neither enhance nor strengthen our democracy, nor meaningfully balance out the overrepresentation of senior citizens and affluent people who come out consistently to cast their ballot.

Of course tying the money to a vote for a particular party is not permissable, but what if one of the candidates goes out with the new information that by voting, a person would be eligible for winning this money, and ties it together with their own message... "remember to vote for me on Tuesday, November 4th, and if you vote, you'll be entered in the running for a million dollar giveaway!" Implicit in that seemingly correct statement is "if you vote for me" rather than just "if you vote."

I'm curious about whether this will pass - the incentives for voting for a particular candidate in the United States have either been completely under the table and in the back room, or vague beliefs based on general assertions in stump speeches and campaign literature. But "what's in it for me" seems a little at odds with the democratic spirit (yet not at all in conflict with the American ethos of "gimme gimme gimme"). Compulsory voting is the other extreme, enforced in Australia and some other nations, which I also think is problematic. If you're not motivated on your own to participate in the institutions of democracies, then the system is failing in some way.

But a million dollar "prize" for going to the polls seems like we're just dangling the fat carrot in front of the face of the American public, and appealing to the lowest common denominator of the American psyche. One of the proponents of the initiative says that millions of dollars are used each year for GOTV efforts, which could be diverted into better civic/voter education work with people throughout the states. That's another interesting perspective.

But what's the difference between giving $10 to someone to vote (where there's a guaranteed reward) instead of the prospect of $1 million for just one lucky sap? Is it just that hearing "$1 million" is enough to get people jazzed about participating? Well, think about it - people vote for things... after all, if we have to ask if there were more votes cast for the American Idol winner than those in the last Presidential election, that's a problem!


On a related note - why is election day on the first Tuesday of November? It's for these questions that we have the internet (and once upon a time, The Straight Dope, by Cecil Adams). So this is what I found out here

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