Arizona lottery-voter plan (NY Times article)
- July 17, 2006
Arizona Ballot Could Become Lottery Ticket
By RANDAL C. ARCHIBOLD
TUCSON, July 13 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
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
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
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
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?"