Opinion: Arizona Gambles with Democracy

by Andre De Fontaine

If you think low voter turnout is a threat to democracy, wait until you see the solution one Arizona “reformer” has cooked up. In November, citizens in that state will decide whether they want to turn their election system into a glorified lottery, where one lucky voter will be picked at random and handed a $1 million prize.

The man behind the proposal is Mark Osterloh, a physician and prominent political activist in Arizona. Osterloh has already collected enough signatures to qualify the so-called Arizona Voter Reward Act for the ballot, but his next trick will be to convince a majority of voters to approve it in the Nov. 7 election.

The idea is simple: increase voter turnout by offering financial incentives to show up at polling places. Citizens voting in the primary and general elections in Arizona will automatically be entered to win a $1 million jackpot. Osterloh says his initiative will increase participation, particularly among low-income people who have long felt disconnected from the political process.

There is merit in trying to increase voter turnout. While 77 percent of all registered voters in Arizona cast ballots in the heated 2004 presidential election, only 56 percent voted in the 2002 governor’s race, according to press reports. And primary election turnout is almost always much lower. The trouble is that Osterloh – who no longer practices medicine – has dangerously misdiagnosed the problem.

The Voter Reward Act mistakenly approaches low voter turnout itself as the problem, while the reality is that depressed voter participation is simply the most visible symptom of a more fundamental flaw in our democratic system. Citizens are choosing not to come out and vote for a reason – and it’s not for lack of cash prizes. They’re turned off by politics. Candidates sling mud at each other instead of addressing real issues. The media covers elections like horse races. Incumbents gerrymander political districts making themselves virtually invincible. Two-party dominance leaves voters with few real alternatives. Bribery allegations and ethical lapses inside the Beltway have cast doubt on the integrity of our political system. And problems at the polls, most notably in Florida in 2000, and Ohio in 2004, have weakened voter confidence in the electoral process.

None of these problems get solved by turning elections into raffles: the quality of a democracy cannot be judged by turnout alone. This is the folly of the Arizona Voter Reward Act. If that were the case, we could simply make voting mandatory, achieve 100 percent turnout and declare the quest to form a more perfect union complete.

But solving the root problems takes hard work. It’s not easy to eliminate partisan redistricting schemes, reduce the influence of big money donors in campaigns, or strengthen ethics rules. The Arizona Voter Reward Act is a shameless shortcut around the work that needs to be done to truly improve our democracy.

Unfortunately, the initiative is not just a silly diversion but one that sucks the spirit of civic duty out of the voting process and replaces it with a poisonous dose of greed. Worse still, it is one that has the potential to distort electoral outcomes through its distortion of incentives. No longer is the primary motivation for voting the desire to support a candidate whose views and character you admire, but to cash in on a major windfall. Unfortunately, the chance of hitting it big has the real potential of drawing citizens to polling places who have no knowledge of the candidates or issues at stake. These voters may cast random, uninformed ballots that risk diluting the influence of the citizens who make informed decisions.

Oh, and one more thing. The initiative may actually be illegal according to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits paying people to vote. While Osterloh says this provision was designed to prevent candidates and others from directly bribing voters to cast their ballots a certain way (therefore arguing that it is not applicable to his initiative), the matter will almost surely be litigated should the Act pass in November.

Supporters of the Voter Reward Act say they hope that if it passes in Arizona other states will follow suit and implement similar lottery systems. For that reason, if none other, let’s hope the Voter Reward Act craps out in Arizona. I’d rather not play dice with democracy.

Email Andre De Fontaine at ard34@georgetown.edu



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