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.
Consider Internet voting. In the conventional view, the only legitimate criticism of online voting is its susceptibility to fraud. Almost no one questions its advisability if it worked - even though online voting assumes that we desperately need to hear from people who otherwise couldn't be bothered to get off the couch. Voting fetishists often liken democracy to a national "conversation" or "dialogue." So, tell me: What intelligent conversation is aided by the intrusion of Beavis and Butt-Head?
What is surprising about Doc Osterloh's wacky idea is that the franchise maximizers hate it. The New York Times dubbed it "daft" and "one of the cheesier propositions on the November ballot." USA Today called it "tawdry." Fair enough.
But I think part of the reason they're so scandalized is that Osterloh is taking their logic to its natural conclusion. Advocates of increasing voter turnout already frame the issue in terms of "what's in it for you." MTV's condescending Choose or Lose campaign, which aims to get 18- to 30-year-olds to vote, says it all right there in the name; the gravy train is leaving the station, and the ballot is your ticket onboard.
Just beneath the surface of much of this voter activism is the assumption that increased turnout would move American politics to the left, by redistributing wealth to the poor and disenfranchised. There's probably some merit here, which explains why so many get-out-the-vote groups are proxies for the Democratic Party. But that doesn't change the fact that they are trolling for votes among people who don't appear to take their citizenship very seriously. Osterloh's bribery scheme merely exposes this motivation in a way that embarrasses voter activists.
Osterloh admits that he's motivated by more than democracy worship. "One of the goals that I've had in my lifetime is to see that all Americans have health care like every other major country on Earth. One of the ways to do that is to make sure that everybody votes." At least he's honest about it.