Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Vote to Win: A Bad Idea

The state of Arizona will consider on its November 7 ballot an idea which should be soundly defeated. It’s an idea that is so patently absurd that I’m surprised that I even have to write an article condemning it. But registered voters signed referendum petitions in sufficient numbers over the summer to get this stupid idea on the ballot. So the whole state is going to vote on it in the next general election.

The idea: Pay people to vote.

Actually, the plan is that each person who votes in either the state primary or general election will be given a chance to win a state-run lottery. The grand prize of the lottery (actually, the only prize) will be a cool one million dollars.

Proponents of the plan claim that their goal is to increase voter turnout by giving people something tangible as a reward for their vote. Apparently, these people don’t realize that participation in the democratic process is supposed to be a reward in itself.

Neither side of the debate has forgotten that federal law prohibits making or offering of any “expenditure to any person, either to vote or withhold his vote.” Fans of the law claim that the chance to win a million dollars has no value because it is just that — a “chance”, not actually any compensation.

Well, they’re wrong.

Any statistician, economist, accountant, or casino operator will tell you that the probability that an event will occur contains an inherent value. It is the value of the event multiplied by the likelihood that the event will occur.

I’ll use very round numbers for demonstrative purposes; the concept is the same. If four million people vote and receive a chance to win a million dollars, each chance is worth exactly twenty-five cents. To say that it doesn’t have a value mocks the intelligence of the voting public and denies basic fundamentals of mathematics.

That’s right, they would serve the same purpose if they just handed everybody a brand new Arizona-commemorative quarter at the polling place. And they’d probably make more people happy at the same time.

Even if this hare-brained idea could pass legal muster — which it can’t — I would still question the wisdom of attempting to use such methods to increase voter participation. That makes the assumption that increased voter participation is always a good idea.

In fact, if incentives such as this are enacted, all it will guarantee is that more people will vote that wouldn’t have voted otherwise. People will vote who haven’t studied the issues. They will vote without any idea of who the candidates are. Many will vote without even being able to read English. Many will turn in blank ballots or ballots that will have to be invalidated because they voted for more than one candidate for the same office. Some people will just make random marks on squares on the ballot. They'll do it because they have no interest in exercising their right to vote; they just want that million dollars.

In fact, I can envision the worst possible scenario. A couple of days before the election, the Democratic Party will release advertising with the following message. “Confused about who to vote for, but still want to be entered in the lottery? No problem. Just vote a straight Democratic ticket! That lets you vote for all the best candidates with only one stoke of the pen.”

The biggest problem is that the proposal incites the very people to vote who actually have the least valid reason for voting. The least educated, the least informed, and the those least interested in the democratic process are the ones that would be most drawn to this type of incentive. I don’t want to deny them of their right to vote; but I see no reason to offer them special incentives to do so.

Let’s hope that wisdom prevails among the voters of Arizona and this measure is defeated. It’s a bad idea.

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