American Losers – Norm Ornstein’s Lottery

April 24, 2012   ·   0 Comments

Source: NYTX

Lottery Ticket

By Marie Burns:

In the latest installment of Today in Crazy, sponsored by the New York Times editorial section, Norm Ornstein of the conservative American Enterprise Institute suggests “a way to transform American elections and along the way reduce our deep political dysfunction.” His plan: “a series of Mega Millions-like lotteries for primary and general elections, with awards that can range up to the hundreds of millions for a big general election – where your lottery ticket is your voting stub.”

Not content with just this generally crazy idea, Ornstein riffs several variations on the theme. Like Tom Friedman, Ornstein has ideas about how billionaire New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg should be contributing to the public good: “It would be nice if, say, Mayor Bloomberg’s foundation kicked in $10 million as a prize for the next New York City election in 2013 to see what impact that had on turnout in New York.”

In support of the Mega-Vote Plan, Ornstein cites the success of the Australian model: “Down Under, if one does not show up, even to cast a ballot for ‘none of the above,’ a fine of roughly $15 is imposed. The result has been turnout of 90 percent or more…. The experience of countries like Australia shows that there is no real downside to having near-universal turnout.” The last Australian Prime Minister managed to hold his office for only two-and-a-half years. The current PM, Julia Gillard, has held office since June 2010 by maintaining a shaky coalition government and “holds a tenuous grip on power.” Yesterday’s AP news: “Australia’s government in crisis as Speaker steps down (… amid allegations of sexual harassment and fraud).” Yeah, that 90 percent turnout definitely guarantees good governance.

According to Ornstein. “Australian politicians of all stripes say that the main impact has been to turn the campaign, the issues and the discourse away from the extremes and toward the persuadable voters in the middle.” Um, isn’t that what American politicians do in general elections? In March, during the GOP presidential primary contest, Willard Mitt Romney told a high school student, “It would be popular for me to stand up and say I’m going to give you government money to pay for your college, but I’m not going to promise that.” Just yesterday, as presumptive nominee, the very same Willard Romney told reporters, unprompted, “I fully support the effort to extend the low interest rate on student loans.” This, despite the fact that Congressional Republicans oppose the plan, which President Obama – Willard’s general election opponent – has been pushing. Would-be President Etch-a-Sketch is adopting, or co-opting President Obama’s policies. As Andrew Leonard of Salon quipped, “The paint is hardly dry on Romney’s locking up of the GOP nomination, and already he is supporting big government handouts. Next thing you know, he’ll be backing universal health care with an individual mandate.”

So do we need an electorate whose purpose in voting is to win a mega-prize? Voters who don’t care which candidate or ballot issue they select? I cannot see how that would improve the political process. In fact, it might cause all candidates to behave more like Mr. Etch-a-Sketch. If candidates from both (or all) parties pandered to the center, it would be harder for marginally-engaged “independent” voters to tell the differences between or among them. As it is, candidates have to rouse their bases, so they must at least adhere to some level of party purity or their base voters would have no incentive to vote for them. Meanwhile, lottery-induced voters would not care one way or the other what policies the candidates favored; they wouldn’t even know.

The Pew Research Center recently conducted a poll of American adults to test their knowledge of the two major political parties. A majority (a bare majority in some cases), correctly answered extremely simple questions about the ideologies and policies of both parties, but since respondents only had two choices, they had a 50-50 chance of getting the right answer. Yet only two-thirds guessed that the Democratic party favored raising taxes on the rich,and less than two-thirds (58 percent) guessed that the Democratic party was more interested in reducing defense spending than were Republicans. Only a bare majority (55 percent) guessed that John Boehner was a Republican; that is, as few as five percent got the right answer because they knew what the right answer was as opposed to guessing the right answer. (Worse, in a multiple choice quiz Pew conducted in 2010, only a quarter of those tested correctly guessed the name of the current Supreme Court chief justice. A full majority admitted they had no idea. The rest guessed long-dead Thurgood Marshall, who was never chief justice; John Paul Stevens, who was then serving on the court, and Harry Reid, who is the Senate majority leader and was never a judge.) How are these people going to vote intelligently? They won’t.

Not only that, the cynicism of “persuading” people to vote in a process in which the odds are overwhelming they will lose certainly would not raise the level of civic interest. A lottery would be one more way of telling people that no matter how they vote, they’ll lose. I think those of us who don’t need prodding to get to the polls already know that. In a recent Slate post, Tim Noah, author of The Great Divergence, noted how growing wealth inequality created alienation among ordinary Americans:

What this means is that if you’re at the median you have no positive reason to care how the economy does. Your only motivation is fear – if the economy does really badly you may lose your job. But there’s no upside. I think this situation has a lot to do with why there’s so much suspicion of institutions that knit the country together – Congress, the media, etc. Logically the suspicion should be directed at the rich, but nobody knows what Lloyd Blankfein looks like. Everybody knows what Barack Obama and John Boehner look like. So people rage against Washington, and government, and you get both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. These groups are quite different in their political orientation, but both groups express contempt for democratic processes.

It’s also reasonable to suppose that many people don’t vote because they have “contempt for democratic processes.” One way to express that contempt, if a lottery was the motivation for voting: sabotage the process – vote for the bigger jerk or write in Mickey Mouse.

If Ornstein were serious about increasing voter turnout, he would have written a post advocating for the repeal of the recent spate of voter ID laws – state laws passed by Republican legislators that require voters to present specific, sometimes costly, personal identification documents at the polls. The purpose of the laws is to suppress the votes of demographic groups that tend to vote Democratic: the elderly, college students and poor people. (Ornstein actually did write a post for the Times last November about voter ID laws, but he did not condemn them; instead he proposed a complicated scheme that might require a Constitutional Amendment to incentivize states to increase vote turnout. Elsewhere, “Ornstein … told The Sacramento Bee that ‘the evidence of significant voter fraud is zero.’ Rather, he says, states are enacting ‘a modern-day equivalent of a poll tax.’)

Or Ornstein might have written a post discussing ways to encourage young people to vote. “Using data from several dozen nationwide voting surveys,” political scientist Eric Plutzer found that if people don’t vote as young adults, they may never vote.

Or Ornstein might have written a post advocating the elimination the Electoral College altogether, a proposal that has several advantages, one of which would appear to be increasing voter turnout. Prof. Plutzer and a colleague found that

young people in highly competitive, ‘battleground’ communities or states tend to vote earlier in their lives. ‘They’re exposed to many political stimuli,’ says Plutzer, ‘and are more likely to be personally contacted by a political organization.’ Unfortunately, the number of battleground states has dwindled as our nation has become increasingly politically polarized and as partisan gerrymandering of Congressional districts has reduced the number of competitive elections for the U.S. House of Representatives. ‘If young adults don’t see their votes as meaningful,’ Plutzer says, ‘they’re much less likely to vote.’

(Instead, Ornstein wrote an article titled, “No Need to Repeal the Electoral College.” The article is firewalled, so I can’t tell what his argument is.) Eliminating the Electoral College, and instead electing the president and vice president by popular vote would mean candidates for the top jobs would have incentive to campaign – and advertise – in every state of the Union.

If Ornstein’s lottery is a bad idea, and if Michael Bloomberg is still looking for ways to spend his billions, how about this: run a lottery with prizes that go only to people who can pass the U.S. citizenship test, who can score at least 75 percent on tests of party knowledge like the Pew quiz, who can name the major candidates for president and identify their parties. Let the political parties conduct the tests, let them pitch their candidates for 15 minutes prior to the test and let them set up voter registration booths at the test sites. Give entrants who qualify for and win the lottery a bonus for voting. This, too, is a fairly crazy idea, but it is not as crazy as Norman Ornstein’s. And it might mean that Americans who bothered to vote would be marginally better-informed than are today’s typical voters.

Update: see also Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column in today’s Washington Pos Post. Vanden Heuvel argues for “universal voter registration, which would automatically register any citizen already in government databases; make registration portable whenever voters change names or addresses; and provide a means to correct registration errors at the polls on Election Day.” Although universal voter registration would not improve voter knowledge, it is a far, far better way to expand the voter base than is a lottery.

Marie Burns blogs at


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