Arizona voters will face an embarrassment of electoral riches this fall, when as many as 19 proposed laws appear on the state ballot for their approval. Among the measures to be voted on are a 50 percent increase in state legislators' salaries, a constitutional amendment allowing bail to be denied to illegal aliens , and the designation of English as the state's official language.
But one Arizona initiative has attracted more national attention than all the others combined: the Arizona Voter Reward Act, which would pay $1 million after each general election to a single voter selected at random. In essence, Arizona elections would become giant lotteries everyone who voted would automatically be entered in a drawing to win the jackpot.
The proposal is the brainchild of Dr. Mark Osterloh, a Tucson ophthalmologist and political activist, who thinks it would heighten interest in elections and boost voter turnout. Considering the throngs of people who line up to buy lottery tickets, I'd say that's a pretty good bet. I'd also say the whole idea is pretty boneheaded.
Granted, that's what I usually say about proposals for getting more people to vote. I've never understood the whole turnout fetish the notion that the best measure of democratic health is the number of people who vote, and that anything that might lead to higher voter participation should be promptly and enthusiastically embraced.
Such schemes have usually been premised on making voting (or voter registration) as easy and convenient as possible. But voting is already easy and convenient. Going to the polls once a year is considerably less onerous than buying groceries every week or taking the kids to school every day. Adults who care about government and public policy make it their business to vote. Those who don't care shouldn't vote. We are all better off when people with no interest in civic issues ignore elections and leave policy matters to those who take the responsibilities of citizenship more seriously.
But for years now, that has been a losing argument. In their determination to make the election process so effortless that even the most apathetic chucklehead might be willing to cast a vote, the turnout fetishists have pushed through one supposed panacea after another.
They lowered the voting age to 18. They passed the motor-voter law, so anyone getting a driver's license or applying for welfare could simultaneously register to vote. In many states, they enacted no-excuse absentee voting, which allows any resident to request an absentee ballot for any reason. They eliminated the need to show proof of residence, or to show up in person to register or vote. In at least 30 states, they instituted early voting, opening the polls weeks before Election Day. They have dabbled with voting over the Internet. In some places they have even abolished voting booths as in Oregon, where all elections are now conducted by mail.
All of this has been done with the hearty approval of the turnout-worshipers, even though little or none of it has actually increased turnout. Yet, oddly enough, their reaction to Osterloh's "one person, one vote, one million bucks" proposal has been to trash it.
Editorial pages all over have been shocked shocked! that anyone could suggest bribing voters as a way to boost turnout. USA Today calls it "a tawdry idea" that "cheapens one of the most important things a citizen of a democracy can do." The Arizona Republic sees it as "compromising the idealism and responsibility of the vote" in order "to lure a few opportunists." The Oregonian, which in its own state vigorously supported doing away with voting booths in favor of mail-in elections on the grounds that it would "mean greater voter participation," blasts the Arizona proposal as a "spectacularly crass idea" and snorts: "When did American democracy become this cheap?"
When? When pundits and politicians reduced it to nothing more than a numbers game, that's when. When the public rituals of Election Day came to be seen as restrictive nuisances that busy men and women shouldn't have to bother with. When opinion leaders and civic institutions decided to dumb down elections to the level of the least-informed people in the belief that that would induce more of them to vote.
But the key to higher voter turnout is not to make voting so mindless and undemanding that a trained chimpanzee could do it. It is to dispel voter apathy by making elections meaningful. Yes, Osterloh's bribery scheme makes an awful mockery of the right to vote. But if, as I expect, it is sweepingly approved, it will also prove something essential about that right: The surest way to get people to exercise it is to give them a good reason or a million good reasons to do so.