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Turnouts Low? Hold a Lottery

Published: November 3, 1998

The Boston Globe
November 3, 1998

Turnouts Low? Hold a Lottery
By Glenn J. Moramarco

In the 1996 presidential election, for the first time in modern political history, less than half of the eligible electorate bothered to cast their vote for president. Turnout this election day is expected to be approximately 35 percent of eligible voters, or about 70 million people. Some political scientists argue that these 70 million people are engaged in a foolish act. For any one individual, so the argument goes, the decision to vote is essentially irrational—unless you believe that the election would otherwise end in a tie (a statistically insignificant possibility) it is not worth your time or effort to vote.

Of course, this would not be the first time millions of people engaged in a statistically foolish endeavor. Earlier this year, during a single week in August when the powerball lottery jackpot stood at $261 million, Americans in 19 states and the District of Columbia lined up, often for hours at a time, to purchase tickets. Any individual ticket-holder’s chance of winning was a statistically insignificant 80 million to one. But knowledge of those odds did not deter the masses.

Can we harness this capacity for irrational action for some public good? I propose that we hold a national powerball lottery (let’s call it “VoterBall") involving all 50 states and the District of Columbia on the day of federal elections. Tickets would be sold only at polling places, and in order to be eligible to buy a ticket, you first have to cast a vote. The money raised would go one-half to the jackpot, and one-half to a fund to finance federal candidates who agree to abide by voluntary campaign spending limits.

How many additional voters would a national VoterBall lottery attract to the polls? Difficult to say. By interesting coincidence, one in three registered voters will cast a ballot in this non-presidential election year, and approximately one third of all Americans in states with lotteries play them. Although no studies have been done, I suspect that there is not a high degree of overlap between the group of people who regularly engage in the ‘irrational’ act of voting and the group of people who regularly engage in the ‘irrational’ act of buying lottery tickets. The voters tend to be disproportionately well-educated, high-income Americans, while the lottery ticket purchasers tend to be disproportionately less educated and less affluent. Combining the two groups could produce an electorate of unprecedented size.

And we should not forget the money that could be raised. In an average week, state lottery participants nation-wide spend some $700 million dollars on tickets. The prospect of a mega-jackpot, as would result from a 50-state lottery, drives the average numbers significantly higher. If 700 million VoterBall tickets are sold at $1 each, this would be enough to fund a $350 million jackpot and leave the government with $350 million to spend. We should use the government’s share to provide free television time to candidates for federal office that agree to reasonable campaign spending limits. In 1996, a presidential election-year, all federal candidates combined spent a total of $400 million on television advertising. Thus, a federal lottery could supply a very large percentage of the money necessary to finance television political advertising for all federal campaigns. The public would benefit because officeholders could concentrate more on actually meeting with constituents and governing the nation, rather than courting special interest money.

A government lottery was used over 200 years ago to help finance the American Revolution. A national lottery, held on election day every two years, could help revitalize voter turn-out. Hey, you never know.

Glenn J. Moramarco is a senior attorney at New York University Law School’s Brennan Center
for Justice and a former assistant US Attorney.