Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Thomas Jefferson, Meet Ed McMahon
Matt Miller is one of my favorite policy writers out there--a social liberal, fiscal moderate-to-conservative and "process fetishist" who's concerned, in terms of government policy, with the sausage-making as well as the finished product. Admirably, he tries to look at public problems through both the liberal and conservative frames to come up with more broadly acceptable solutions than those proposed by ideologues on either side.

He is an unapologetic Kerry supporter (or rather, Bush opponent), and he's kicked it up a notch in his weekly columns of late, providing solid (if unheeded) campaign advice to Kerry and trying to think through the Iraq muddle--a thankless task if ever there was one. Miller's latest column, however, applies a "Modest Proposal" mindset to an issue that has troubled goo-goos for years now: why voter turnout in the U.S. is so embarrassingly low compared to the rest of the major democracies:

If you think low voter turnout is killing American democracy, listen to our local rabbi's wife.

No kidding. Didi Carr Reuben's idea (which I may reprise every presidential season until Americans rise as one to demand its enactment) is simple and sure to work: Turn the election into a lottery. The stub that's proof you voted would be your ticket. Prizes could range from $10 million for the winner to $1 million for dozens of runners-up.

Does anyone doubt this would lift turnout from a pathetic 50 percent in presidential years (and one-third in non-presidential years) toward 100 percent? Say goodbye to old arguments over whether nonvoters feel powerless or pleased. It's all moot when everybody has to vote to win!

Imagine the excitement this Nov. 2 if this scheme were in place. Firms would make sure workers had time to vote. Families would coax all their cousins to the polls. As night fell, we'd huddle 'round the tube to see who would take office - and to learn who had really won! A rapt nation would hold its breath, marinating in the twin dramas of participatory democracy and randomly redistributed wealth.

I e-mailed this column around to a bunch of friends earlier today, and the first two responses I got back actually made excellent points. Frequent AIS commentor Batgirl (whose secret identity is safe here) notes that current non-voters aren't likely to put much thought into their choices, if they're pulling the lever (or pushing the screen, or punching the chad, or what have you) just for a shot at the big payout. True enough, but as this funny yet profoundly depressing story reveals, that doesn't really differentiate them from most other folks: an Annenberg study finds that on tax policy, prescription drug reimportation, privatizing Social Security and other issues of, I'd say, much more importance than windsurfing vs. brush clearing, most voters don't know who favors what.

The response to this, and I guess to Batgirl's point, is that in both cases people would probably turn to their friends, to media cues (uh-oh...), and maybe to that old fading standby of party identification to help cast their votes. The world shows us every day that the uninformed nevertheless can have strong opinions.

The second response was that a lottery would create new incentives to "vote early and vote often." It's true that adding a financial inducement would create all kinds of new incentives toward fraud and cheating (not to mention necessitate the creation of a new election bureaucracy, and if you want to get technical there's probably a Constitutional issue in there too). But then again, it's not like we're starting from a Platonic ideal of pristine elections: one could argue that anything prompting government to more closely monitor elections and guarantee their integrity is welcome on its face. Right?

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