The Arizona voting lottery is an interesting idea (Jeff Jacoby. A million bad reasons to vote, Boston Globe, August 2nd. 2006). Some have lauded it as a vehicle for increasing people's interest in the democratic process and election issues, others have decried it as foolish because it will bring people to the polls who have no knowledge of or interest in the issues being decided.
When it comes to explaining voting patterns, there are two factors to be considered: opportunity to vote and motivation to vote. If implemented, this million dollar voting proposal has some interesting and counter intuitive effects. Jacoby is scornful of "good government" organizations like the League of Women Voters and Common Cause who have proposed a variety of measures to make voting easier; the so-called turnout worshipers. He argues that removing barriers to voting by allowing provisional ballots, universal absentee ballots, and Oregon's mail-in ballot open the door to the uninformed voter. He is wrong. He is confusing motivation with opportunity. All of these measures reduce the barriers to voting thereby increasing the opportunity to vote. For many, especially the poor, getting to the poll is not the easy event, implied by Jacoby, that it is to those of us with flexible working hours and easily accessible workplaces. Consider the difficulties that these people would have reaching the polling place:
the person with a long and difficult commute between home (close to the polling station) and work
the low paid worker working two jobs in order to pay for rent, food, and medical care for the family
the single mother juggling work and two children, each with different school schedules
For each of these, getting to the polling place in a timely fashion may be nearly impossible. For Jacoby, it is trivial.
In addition, insufficient equipment, overworked and under-trained poll workers, long lines, and deliberate voter suppression by political party organizations ( providing inaccurate information like "If you can't vote on Tuesday, come on Thursday") all raise barriers to voter participation. Their presence makes it difficult for even the most motivated voter to actually consummate his or her vote. By adding a monetary goal, the million dollar lottery may cause people to try a little harder to overcome the barriers to voting.
The impact on the motivation to vote itself is more complex. Motives to do something come in two flavors: intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Do I work because the work is challenging and enjoyable (intrinsic motivation) or do I work because I am paid (extrinsic motivation)? In the context of voting, the intrinsic motives arise out of the issues in the election, the attractiveness of the candidates, and the desire to perform the duties of citizenship I can't wait to become an American citizen so that I can vote. Into this mix, the Arizona lottery initiative introduces an extrinsic reward: the opportunity to win a million dollars.
The proponents of the Arizona Lottery Proposal believe that if they encourage people to vote through the lottery, the people will also increase their interest in the people and the candidates and therefore become better informed. While this is plausible on the surface, I do not think this will happen. The research on motivation has shown that adding extrinsic rewards to an activity that is intrinsically motivating will undermine or reduce the intrinsic motivation. In the voting context, while the addition of an extrinsic reward increases the total motivation of the individual to vote, it paradoxically reduces the intrinsic motivation, that is it undermines the individual's interest in the issues, the candidates, and desire to be a good citizen. In some sense, the control of the individual's voting behavior has been removed from him or herself to the extrinsic reward. This is not good. The proponents of the scheme argue that attracting people to vote will result in their developing an interest in the issues. Unfortunately this will not occur. Interest is likely to decrease.
So we have a dilemma. Adding the extrinsic reward may make people more likely to vote. However, it will probably not increase their interest in politics. Jacoby is right that it is a bad idea; the advocates of good government are also right that it is a bad idea. To increase people's interest in the issues, we have to make more fundamental changes to the election procedures: appoint independent non-partisan election officers, make elections more competitive, use independent redistricting commissions, and, most important, take private money out of the election process. The benefit of increasing persistence to vote can also be acquired in other ways especially the suppression of voter suppression tactics.