Listen to My Rabbi's Wife
Fortune, September 29, 2004
Want a foolproof plan to generate 100% voter turnout? Make elections lotteries.
f you think low voter turnout is killing American democracy, listen to our local rabbi's wife.
No kidding. Didi Carr Reuben's idea (which I may reprise every presidential season until Americans rise as one to demand its enactment) is simple and sure to work: Turn the election into a lottery. The stub that's proof you voted would be your ticket. Prizes could range from $10 million for the winner to $1 million for dozens of runners-up.
Does anyone doubt this would lift turnout from a pathetic 50 percent in presidential years (and one-third in non-presidential years) toward 100 percent? Say goodbye to old arguments over whether nonvoters feel powerless or pleased. It's all moot when everybody has to vote to win!
Imagine the excitement this Nov. 2 if this scheme were in place. Firms would make sure workers had time to vote. Families would coax all their cousins to the polls. As night fell, we'd huddle 'round the tube to see who would take officeand to learn who had really
won! A rapt nation would hold its breath, marinating in the twin dramas of participatory democracy and randomly redistributed wealth.
"Dan Rather back again," we'd hear. "With polls now closed on the West Coast, CBS News is predicting that John Kerry is the next president...and Sheila Jackson has just won $10 million! In a moment we'll go to Bush headquarters for what is expected to be a very compassionate concession speech, but first Bob Schieffer is live in South Central Los Angeles with America's freshly minted multimillionaire and single mother...."
Depending on how many winners were staked, and how generously, the cost of this guaranteed 100 percent turnout plan could be as low as $15 million each election, or as high as $500 million. The feds could easily finance it as they do presidential campaign-matching funds today.
But the more creative fix would be for a handful of tycoons to endow the election lottery in perpetuity. Silicon Valley is overflowing with weary new zillionaires who fret they can't find the kind of "high-impact" philanthropy worthy of their world-beating natures. Well, how does raising voter turnout from 50 percent to 100 percent for eternity sound?
Yes, some cranky citizens will doubtless refuse to save their stubs on principle, but that just improves the odds for the rest of us patriots. And the whole thing turns the usual anti-lottery arguments on their ear: Instead of preying on poor people who fritter away needed cash in dreams of hitting it big, this lottery empowers them by giving poor folks (along with everyone) a stake in voting. In one stroke it might do more for the disenfranchised than a dozen Jesse Jackson campaigns. (And a note to network executives: Just think of the ratings!)
Sure, it would be nice if such measures weren't necessary. And sure, the other advanced democracies don't need such gimmicks. But we've had decades of hand-wringing and civics lectures while voting continues to plunge.
And this is America, after all. If everything else pays, why shouldn't voting?