Lotteries and voting

by Rob Horning

19 July 2006


Economists always like to complain that there is no real incentive for voting, since one vote (yours) never decides the outcome. As Steven Landsburg explains in this 2004 Slate column,

Last time around, about 6.5 million votes were cast for major party candidates in New York state and 63 percent of them went to Al Gore. Assuming an electorate of similar size with a similar bias, my chance of casting the deciding vote in New York is about one in 10 to the 200,708th power. I have a better chance of winning the Powerball jackpot 7,400 times in a row than of affecting the election’s outcome. Which makes it pretty hard to see why I should vote.
The traditional reply begins with the phrase “But if everyone thought like that ... .” To which the correct rejoinder is: So what? Everyone doesn’t think like that. They continue to vote by the millions and tens of millions.
Even for the most passionate partisan, it’s hard to argue that voting is a good use of your time. Instead of waiting in line to vote, you could wait in line to buy a lottery ticket, hoping to win $100 million and use it to advance your causes—and all with an almost indescribably greater chance of success than you’d have in the voting booth.

Landsburg must be delighted then that the state of Arizona now has a ballot referendum to institute an award of $1 million to one lucky voter chosen at random. This seems borderline unconstiutional, but you can see the immediate appeal. More people will vote, and more people voting is a de facto good thing. But is it? Steve Benen argues that this is probably a bad idea: “The logic behind this effort is that higher turnout is an inherent good. I disagree. An unengaged voter, who knows literally nothing about the candidates or the issues, may feel inclined to cast a ballot on Election Day, filling a ballot with choices he or she made more or less at random, for a shot at $1 million. That person hasn’t become engaged by the process or captivated by a sense of civic duty; that person is essentially throwing darts at a board for a chance at a cool million. Democracy doesn’t thrive on more votes; it thrives on quality votes — an engaged electorate that knows the issues, studies the candidates, and cares about the outcome. Even if a lottery boosted turnout, and I suspect it would, what’s the benefit? Who wins when a potential bribe spurs minimal action among those who would otherwise not care?”

But we can’t assume that the new voters this scheme would attract would be any more poorly informed than voters who currently exercise the franchise. People already vote out of a misplaced sense of duty, seeing the civil action as a viable and laudable replacement for actually following politics and being aware of governmental issues. A better argument against this gimmicky scheme is that it debases the vote and makes it incidental to the contest, something like the Big Mac is to the Monopoly game piece. It implies votes are for sale for the infintesimal amount that is equivalent to the odds-adjusted real value of $1 million lottery ticket. (One of Benen’s commenters estimates it come out to around 55 cents.) If votes are for sale, you should get a lot more for it than that, especially considering how much lobbyists pour into campaigns in order to win those votes.

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