Good Enough for God

Would rewarding a random voter with $1 million encourage discourse or ignorance?

Some people might have been content to stay focused on the grueling physical work of taking a bicycle tour of Arizona. But not Mark Osterloh.

The Tucson political activist, lawyer and doctor made such a trek during his gubernatorial campaign in 2002, and guess what was on his mind? Increasing voter participation!

"It was real hot, and I had a lot of time to think," said Osterloh, who also made unsuccessful runs for the Legislature in 1996, 1998 and 2000. "And I was thinking: What can we do to get people to vote?"

Following some "free association" during his bike trip and a subsequent study of the Australian electoral system, in which citizens are penalized with a small fine for not voting, Osterloh decided it would be better to sweeten the deal than slap wrists.

"The Supreme Court says we can't force people to vote, because it's a free-speech issue," Osterloh continued. "But that's the stick approach. I figured, well, let's try the carrot approach. Let's build an incentive in, and that incentive is that anybody who votes has the chance to become a millionaire."

After Osterloh gathered 185,000 signatures to get his idea on the ballot, Proposition 200, also known as the Arizona Voter Reward Act, was born. If approved by Arizonans on Nov. 7, voters in primary and general elections would be entered into a drawing to win $1 million every two years. Prize money would come from unclaimed state lottery winnings.

The proposition has been written to be retroactive for 2006--meaning people who vote against it could still end up being a winner if it passes.

Journalists from ABC, CBS, CNN, MSNBC and scads of radio stations across the country have interviewed Osterloh about the initiative, he said. Reporters from Australia, Canada, Colombia, Germany, Poland, Sweden and the United Kingdom--among others--have also called on him.

Osterloh said the voter lottery would be a legitimate way to get people to show up at the polls. He recounted a story told to him by a man who said his nonvoting daughter's ears perked up when he mentioned she could possibly win $1 million.

But would these suddenly interested voters take the time to research the candidates and issues? Osterloh thinks so.

"This is the first thing that'll really motivate people," he said. "The important thing is that when people really start voting, it's going to increase the political-discourse process, and there'll be less of these bizarre TV ads and a lot more people talking to their co-workers over the water coolers at work. ... Once people decide to vote, they'll study the issues and candidates, because they know what's important to them."

Osterloh added that the same argument about floods of people registering their uninformed opinions at the polls was used to keep women, African Americans and American Indians from voting. If we had bought into that argument, he said, none of these people would be enfranchised today.

Yet all is not well in Voter Reward Land. An Arizona State University Cronkite-Eight poll released Sept. 28 showed the initiative failing, 47 percent to 40 percent. The poll of 882 registered voters had a sampling error of plus or minus 3.3 percent.

And a steady stream of detractors are scorning Proposition 200 as "a gimmick" that's "absurd" and "frivolous."

"I think it's a terrible idea," said Curtis Gans, director of the nonpartisan Center for the Study of the American Electorate. "People should not be bribed to vote, which is what this essentially is."

Gans said Prop 200 would do nothing to address underlying voter disaffection--a notion seconded by Kelly McDonald, an ASU assistant professor who studies political communication and voter participation.

Giving people who are turned off by today's political process fistfuls of money won't do anything to turn them back on, according to McDonald. What it would do is create "a disaffected voter who thinks they can get rich by voting, which does not sound like a recipe for turning out interested and engaged voters." On the other hand, mail ballots and programs designed to get people talking about and involved in the political process have been shown to pump up participation, McDonald said.

Gabriel "Jack" Chin, a professor of law at the University of Arizona, said that even if voters passed the initiative, it would run afoul of federal law.

"It's sort of a pointless exercise, because there are federal statutes that prohibit paying people to vote," Chin said. "The federal statutes say you can't give people a thing of value for registering to vote, voting or voting for a particular candidate. So the idea that this isn't vote-buying because you're not paying people to vote for one person or another, that's not what the statutes prohibit. They prohibit paying people to vote at all."

Osterloh countered that federal law only applies to people giving voters money, not the government. And he said when detractors use words like "frivolous" and "absurd" to describe Proposition 200, it's a sign they have "poor arguments."

Osterloh is using a range of quotes and citations--from Abraham Lincoln to Mahatma Gandhi to the Declaration of Independence--in order to bolster his assertions. He has also dubbed the voter lottery "capitalism at its finest."

"We have a powerful economy, and it's because we build incentives into the system," he said. "Why did capitalism whoop communism soundly? It's because we have incentives, and communism doesn't."

According to Osterloh, Proposition 200's appropriateness even goes beyond capitalism to the spiritual realm. He said handing out a cool million for voting "jibes with what God does."

"People say, 'Oh, there's something morally wrong with this,'" Osterloh said. "If that's true, then there's something morally wrong with God. Because God created us to work on incentives, and he incentivizes us to do good in this life like He says, with the reward of heaven if you do the right thing. ... If incentives are good enough for God, then they're good enough for the voters of Arizona."