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A Proposal To Sweeten The Ballot Box


By REGINE LABOSSIERE, Courant Staff Writer

October 19, 2007

Political activists and state officials across the country have debated how they can increase voter turnout, such as by creating a votersonly lottery.

Dr. Mark Osterloh, a Tucson, Ariz., ophthalmologist who has run unsuccessfully for governor of Arizona and for the Arizona state legislature, proposed an idea last year to create a type of lottery with a $1 million prize that only voters could participate in. The proposal -- widely reported in the national press -- was rejected.

Susan Bysiewicz, Connecticut's secretary of state, also has thought of voter incentives, but, she says, money is not the answer.


If incentives are good enough for God, then they are good enough for voters. In essence God says, "Do what you are supposed to do and I will reward you with eternal life in heaven." Voter rewards supporters say, "Do what you are supposed to do, vote, and you will get a chance to win a million dollars." All humans work on incentives. If you get the incentives right, you will usually get people to act the way you want. If there is something wrong with incentives, then there is something wrong with God!

I totally agree that everyone should vote as their civic duty and to honor our forefathers who gave their lives for that right. If everyone did what they were supposed to do we wouldn't have divorces or prisons. We are dealing with real people and we need a real solution. Up till now nothing has worked.

Why are people not voting? A big reason is frustration with politicians who say one thing then do something else. People realize the special interest groups buy politicians with their campaign contributions. They feel their votes don't count, so why bother? People have it right, not the talk-show pundits who keep insulting them.

Millions of dollars are spent each election trying to get people to vote. The results are poor. For $1 million, you could get virtually everyone to the polls. This could be done by automatically entering every voter into a drawing. One voter would be randomly chosen to win $1 million. The money could come from the lottery, and the Connecticut Lottery Corp. could conduct the drawing. The winner would have to prove citizenship before collecting the prize.

A voter rewards drawing would not run afoul of federal criminal laws that say individuals cannot offer incentives to induce people to vote. The laws don't apply to state or local governments. There is no legitimate government purpose for the Feds to interfere with incentives that get people to vote if everyone is treated equally. Such a drawing would be unbiased since every person who voted would be included. It would not matter what their party affiliation was, their gender, race, religion or any other designation.

Australia imposes a $20 fine on anyone who doesn't vote. The result is that 95 percent of the people vote. By the way, everyone in Australia has health care coverage. If every American were voting they would likely pressure Congress into guaranteeing health care for all. We are unable to force people to vote because it violates the free speech provision of our Constitution. We cannot use the stick to get people to vote, but we can use the carrot.

- Dr. Mark Osterloh, ophthalmologist and political activist


Just a few weeks ago, I dedicated Connecticut's State Register and Manual to the soldiers from this state who died last year in Afghanistan and Iraq. I felt it was important, as the secretary of the state and the state's chief elections official, to recognize their sacrifice and acknowledge that they died to protect our freedom - which includes the right to vote.

It is a tragedy that so many people - not just in Connecticut - squander that right. The persistence of low turnout has led some to suggest that the government should entice people to vote by offering them special rewards, or as proposed in Arizona, access to a voters-only lottery with a chance to win $1 million.

While ideas such as these are creative - if not downright gimmicky - they also strike me as being inappropriate and ill-advised.

There was a time when President John F. Kennedy inspired a nation by saying, "my fellow Americans: Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country." Kennedy made that plea during his 1961 inaugural address as the nation was embattled in the Cold War.

Nearly 50 years later Kennedy's call to service has been turned on its head. Our nation is embroiled in an expensive war, but President Bush has cut taxes and put billions of dollars on our children's charge card. Global warming and our nation's dependence on foreign oil are clear and present dangers but the president tells us Americans no sacrifices are needed. In today's climate - in which the new motto could be "ask not what you can do for your country, but what your country can do for you - perhaps paying people to vote is the next step.

Of course, there is a better way to increase turnout, one that appeals to our sense of duty, not our greed. We must do a better job educating our children

That's why, as secretary of the state, I have made civics education a major priority in my office. This year alone we have visited dozens of high schools and registered more than 1,000 students to vote. My office also sponsors essay and poster contests for grade school students and a debate for high school students.

More must be done; schools should increase civics requirements, candidates can do a better job engaging their younger constituents.

Ultimately, nothing will have as big an impact on turnout as finally closing the achievement gap that exists among minority students and ensuring that all students graduate with the ability to read a newspaper, understand the issues and truly have a stake in society. In the process, we'd get better citizens and higher turnout.

Paying people to vote is a lot easier, but it doesn't make it right.

- Susan Bysiewicz, Connecticut secretary of the state

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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