I don't know about you, but when that Mega Millions or Powerball jackpot gets really high, I like to go down to the local convenience store and ask the good folks waiting for hours to buy a fistful of tickets, "Hey, do you think Condi Rice should cut a deal with Bashar Assad?" Or, "Excuse me, sir, I know you're busy filling out those little ovals for the same 78 numbers you play every week, but I was wondering whether you think reimportation of Canadian drugs is a good idea?" I mean, where better to find the distilled genius of the vox populi than a line of people at the 7-Eleven who have a lot of time to spare during working hours?
Nowhere, according to Dr. Mark Osterloh of Tucson, Ariz. Which is why he wants to get the lotto crowd to vote by turning elections into giant lotteries. His idea, which has received undue national attention, is simple: If you vote, you're automatically entered in a drawing for $1 million - and perhaps some fabulous consolation prizes, too! His proposal will be on the November ballot in Arizona, and he hopes it will revolutionize the country by enlisting the lottery-line crowd to fix our democracy. He even has a slogan: "Who wants to be a millionaire? Vote!"
Osterloh, an ophthalmologist and political activist (he ran for governor by bicycling throughout the state a few years ago), is one of those classic American cranks who has the audacity to take our civic cliches seriously. Since the civil rights era, Americans have been indoctrinated with the message that voting is the essential yardstick of citizenship. Editorialists, civics teachers and an assortment of deep-thinking movie stars residing in Periclean Hollywood have gone to great lengths to tell Americans that voter apathy is a terrible evil and that, conversely, high voter turnout is a sign of civic health.
Indeed, for several years, voting rights activists have been pushing to give prison inmates and younger teenagers the right to vote, presuming that giving rapists, killers and Justin Timberlake fans a bigger say will improve our democratic process.
The push to make voting much easier has been considerably less controversial. Weekend voting, voting by mail and online voting are constantly greeted as vital reforms of our electoral system. And although some of these reforms are probably benign, all assume that even the slightest inconvenience in voting is an outrage because democratic health is purely a numbers game: More voters equals a healthier society. My own view is that voting should be more difficult because things of value usually require a little work. That goes for citizenship, too.