New Jersey is the latest state to toy with a bad idea. A couple of state legislators are sponsoring a legislation that would create a "New Jersey Voter Reward Program" that, according to the New York Times, would make everyone who votes in the state "eligible to win more than $1 million in a lottery drawing after an election," with those who vote in both the primary and the general elections having "two chances of winning."
The voting lottery would be paid for out of unclaimed winnings from the state's regular lottery -- 20% of the unclaimed money, according to the bill -- along with voluntary donations, investment earnings and other money appropriated by the state Legislature.
Patrick Diegnan, the Assemblyman who sponsored the bill, told the Gannett State Bureau earlier this year that the legislation was intended to "encourage people to vote."
Turnout, as the New York Times reports, has been on the decline in New Jersey -- as it has elsewhere &endash;- "with a record-low 48.5% of registered voters actually voting in the 2005 race for governor between Jon S. Corzine and Douglas R. Forrester."
An election lottery, according to Diegnan, could boost turnout.
"So many folks at this particular point just don't pay attention to the process, feel a disconnect, and maybe something like this will have people paying a little bit more attention," he said.
Payoffs, of course, do tend to get one's attention &endash; as the recent Congressional bribery scandals prove.
Turning the polls into a massive lottery game, however, is not the answer. Fixing the election system is.
In a 2006 op-ed in the Arizona Daily Star in June, Ryan O'Donnell of FairVote, a nonpartisan group that advocates on behalf of electoral reforms, called Arizona's proposed lottery plan a "gamble" that is unlikely to pay off (Arizona voters defeated the proposal at the polls in November), adding that the stakes already should be high enough to attract voter interest.
"Indeed, everyone already has serious money at stake," he wrote. "Taxes, transportation decisions, educational questions and so on have real economic impact on our lives."
The lottery incentive, he added, "will no doubt fail as a magic-bullet solution," because "the root of all the contributing factors is the belief that our votes don't count and don't translate into effective representation."
That's certainly the case in New Jersey, where voters have been bombarded with what has been a weekly lineup of corruption probes and stories of ethically challenged politicians. We already assume that most of our elected officials work under a system in which their votes appear tied to the money they raise from contributors for their campaigns. And that many of the people who end up working for local, county and state agencies are those very contributors.
Turning our votes into lottery tickets would only extend this system of legalized bribery to average citizens, without addressing the real problems that are keeping people away from the polls.
The main issue, of course, is the confluence of money and power, a linkage that has to be broken if we are to make progress on the issues that voters say matter most to them.
The best way to do this is through clean elections. Candidates who qualify under clean-elections laws &endash; by raising a set amount of small qualifying contributions &endash; get a set amount of money from the campaign pot. Candidates would then be spared the need to seek out the big-money donors &endash; and the strings they attach to their contributions &endash; to help pay for their run for office. In addition, candidates would earn free television and radio airtime &endash; though cable television, newspaper and Internet advertising would still cost money.
The better programs also include a feature designed to level the playing field. Candidates targeted by free-spending opponents and advocacy groups who run issue ads &endash; like those run by the Swift Boat group during the last presidential race &endash; would get extra cash from the clean-elections fund to fight back.
We also need tighter disclosure rules and a system that makes it easier to vote, either by holding elections on multiple days -- preferably on the weekends -- and by allowing some form of secure e-voting.
Cleaning up the system and making it easier to get to the polls is much more likely not only to increase turnout, but to increase real interest creating a better-informed electorate.
Democracy isn't supposed to be about the big cash payoff. The payoff is supposed to be an efficiently functioning government that has the people's interest at heart.
Hank Kalet is a poet and newspaper editor in central New Jersey. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. See his blog, Channel Surfing, at www.kaletblog.com.
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