$1 million gimmick on Arizona's ballot

Lottery would reward one lucky voter

July 17, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

TUCSON, Ariz. --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 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," Osterloh said, "and the odds of winning this are much, much higher."

If some see the erosion of democracy in putting voting on the same plane as a scratch-and-win game - and some do - 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 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, such as illegal immigrants and felons.

"Basically our government is elected by a small minority of citizens," said 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," he 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 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 state lottery commission said its unclaimed prize pot fluctuated greatly, but it now stood at more than $1 million.

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.

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