The Mega Millions solution

Article Highlights

  • Imagine Mega Millions-like lotteries for primary and general elections, with awards up to the hundreds of millions.

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  • Enhanced voting in primaries would probably lead to fewer bomb-throwers and more problem solvers in Congress.

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  • Adding an incentive to bring more Americans to the polls would enhance democracy, not trivialize it.

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The Mega Millions lottery last month with its whopping $656 million prize captured the intense interest of Americans across the country. Estimates suggest that as many as 100 million people participated. No matter that the odds of winning the jackpot were known to be much less than being struck by lightning twice. Investing a few bucks (or in the case of Washington Wizards forward Chris Singleton, ten thousand) for the chance to become a centa-millionaire was irresistible for nearly half of the adult population of the country.

The overwhelming success of the Mega Millions enterprise makes it an irresistible target for something more — a way to transform American elections and along the way reduce our deep political dysfunction. Our take-no-prisoners tribal politics have at root the reality that the two parties’ narrow ideological bases have far more influence on the selection of candidates, the positions taken by the candidates and the pressures placed on elected officials than the rest of the population. With turnout in presidential elections hovering between 50 and 60 percent, 30 to 40 percent for mid-term congressional contests, and sometimes 10 to 20 percent for primaries, it is the bases who rule.

At the same time, political consultants focus the bulk of their energies on a two-prong strategy for driving the base voters one way or the other — both making sure that your party’s base is energized and that the other party’s base is depressed. The obvious fallout is that the issues that dominate are the ones that excite or infuriate the bases — abortion, same-sex marriage, guns, immigration— and the language used to whip up the bases is harsh and extreme. All this does even more to turn off voters in the middle.Other countries like Australia have ameliorated this dynamic by implementing mandatory attendance at the polls — Down Under, if one does not show up, even to cast a ballot for “none of the above,” a fine of roughly $15 is imposed. The result has been turnout of 90 percent or more. High turnout is nice in and of itself. But Australian politicians of all stripes say that the main impact has been to turn the campaign, the issues and the discourse away from the extremes and toward the persuadable voters in the middle.

After all, the pols know that both party bases will be there, with predictable results — and that what they need to do is persuade the persuadables. This means a sharper focus on the big issues that concern them and the country, from budgets to energy and climate change to education and jobs, and more moderate rhetoric, since fiery words will turn away moderate voters.

I would love to implement the Australian model in America, but I recognize that mandatory voting — actually, mandatory anything — is a hard sell in this country. So here is another idea: a series of Mega Millions-like lotteries for primary and general elections, with awards that can range up to the hundreds of millions for a big general election — where your lottery ticket is your voting stub. It is a reasonable guess, given what we have seen with big lotteries in the states, that a billion dollars for all federal primary and general elections in a cycle (a small sum to enhance democracy and reduce dysfunction) would, by providing a very powerful incentive to get Americans registered and to actually turn up at the polls, result in a robust increase in turnout, perhaps to as much as 75 or 80 percent. The idea could be applied in states and localities with smaller prizes and not simply using public money; perhaps auto dealers could donate cars, for example.

Here is an idea: a series of Mega Millions-like lotteries for primary and general elections, with awards that can range up to the hundreds of millions for a big general election — where your lottery ticket is your voting stub.

Another way to implement the plan would be to use a state’s voter registration rolls and pick five names at random as winners — with the names announced after the election, but the prizes given only to those who actually voted. All it would take to send a powerful message to other non-voters is one example in an election where an individual was picked but lost a Corvette or $100,000 because he or she did not vote.

To be sure, the basic concept is not new. In 2006, a doctor named Mark Osterloh managed to get a proposition on the Arizona ballot to offer a $1 million prize for a voter in the state’s upcoming primary or general election (those who voted in both would have two tickets, or chances at the prize) with the lottery winnings coming from unclaimed rewards left in the state’s own lottery pool. The initiative was widely panned as tawdry, or as dangerous for encouraging uninformed citizens to cast uninformed votes, or as aiming at increasing turnout for no good reason beyond having a higher turnout. It failed.

Six years later, after still more dysfunction and acrimony, those objections are much less resonant. The idea of encouraging voting to provide more muscle for the broad center of America should be more appealing; the counterargument that we should not be bribing people to vote, less so. The experience of countries like Australia shows that there is no real downside to having near-universal turnout. And the idea of using a carrot to enhance turnout and depress the role of ideological extremists, instead of a stick like a fine for not showing up at the polls, may be more attractive now than it was in 2006. Enhanced voting in primaries, for example, would probably lead over time to fewer bomb-throwers and more problem solvers in state legislatures and in Congress.

The best way to implement this idea is to provide some empirical tests. It would be nice if, say, Mayor Bloomberg’s foundation kicked in $10 million as a prize for the next New York City election in 2013 to see what impact that had on turnout in New York. Or perhaps a small state or a city could try its own version of a vote lottery, using a combination of public and private funds. If people are willing to stand in line for hours to get a precious Mega Millions ticket, it is reasonable to assume that they would take the steps necessary to vote to have a chance at the same dream.  Plenty of Americans go the extra mile, sometimes literally, to cast their vote. But lots of others do not. Adding an incentive to bring more of the latter to the polls would enhance democracy, not trivialize it.

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About the Author


Norman J.
  • Norman Ornstein is a long-time observer of Congress and politics. He is a contributing editor and columnist for National Journal and The Atlantic and is an election eve analyst for BBC News. He served as codirector of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project and participates in AEI's Election Watch series. He also served as a senior counselor to the Continuity of Government Commission. Mr. Ornstein led a working group of scholars and practitioners that helped shape the law, known as McCain-Feingold, that reformed the campaign financing system. He was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. His many books include The Permanent Campaign and Its Future (AEI Press, 2000); The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, with Thomas E. Mann (Oxford University Press, 2006, named by the Washington Post one of the best books of 2006 and called by The Economist "a classic"); and, most recently, the New York Times bestseller, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, also with Tom Mann, published in May 2012 by Basic Books. It was named as one of 2012's best books on pollitics by The New Yorker and one of the best books of the year by the Washington Post.
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