Arizona Man Urges Lottery Lure to Spur Voter Turnout

In a bid to increase voter participation in Arizona, Dr. Mark Osterloh is spearheading a ballot initiative that would automatically make each person who casts a vote eligible to win a million dollars in unclaimed state lottery money. Melissa Block talks with Osterloh about why he thinks his initiative will bring more voters to the polls.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Who do you know who doesn't want to be a millionaire? That's the question from a political activist in Arizona and he thinks he knows the answer. Mark Osterloh has this idea, he wants a lottery system to be integrated with state voting, so that every two years one lucky voter, picked at random, will win one million dollars. And he says he's collected enough signatures to get his initiative on the ballot this fall.

Mark Osterloh is no stranger to these sorts of political efforts. He's worked on several other ballot initiatives and he ran for Arizona governor in 2002 as a Democrat, touring the state on his bike. Osterloh laid out for us the details of his latest effort.

MARK OSTERLOH: Well, it's real simple. Voter turnout in elections throughout the country has been very poor and it's been getting worse. People have tried every conceivable idea under the sun, these massive get out the vote efforts, minimally effective. Huge amounts of money are spent and it hasn't been working.

So, I decided, let's use capitalism as an incentive to get people to go to the polls and the idea behind this is anybody who votes in the elections is automatically entered into the drawing. One voter is randomly picked and they will win one million dollars. We also set it up so that it's retroactive. So anybody that votes this September in the primary or November in the general is eligible for that first million dollar prize.

BLOCK: If this ballot initiative passes.

OSTERLOH: Well, yeah, that's if, but I don't know too many people who wouldn't want to earn a million dollars just for doing their civic duty.

BLOCK: Well, the odds would be - I guess there are about two million people who voted in the last presidential election, so your odds would be one in two million.

OSTERLOH: It could be one in four million if everybody registers and votes.

BLOCK: Now where would this one million dollars come from?

OSTERLOH: It comes from the unclaimed prize fund of the Arizona lottery. When people buy their lottery tickets, sometimes they loose them and they forget them. There's quite a bit of money in there. We'll just take out one million every two years.

BLOCK: And where does that money go now?

OSTERLOH: It gets recycled back into the fund for further drawings.

BLOCK: What do you say to the predictable response to your plan or to this is a gimmick and doesn't have anything to do with civic responsibility, cheapens the vote?

OSTERLOH: Well, I would use an example of Australia. If you don't vote in Australia they fine you $20 and 95 percent of the people in Australia vote. Everybody in Australia has healthcare, everybody here doesn't. Their minimum wage is over $9 an hour and you can live on that. Here ours is $5.50 and you can't live on that.

When everybody votes, they will make sure they get representatives in the legislature or Congress that represent them and they will get their issues addressed.

BLOCK: Does it concern you at all that people who show up may just be more interested in the one million dollar lottery prize, that they wouldn't be informed voters and do you think about that? Does that bother you?

OSTERLOH: No, when they go to the polls - I mean, this is basic human nature, let's get back to that, once you get to that polling booth, if you want to you can just decide not to vote for anybody. But what are most people going to say? Who's going to take care of the issue that's bothering me the most? Well, maybe in this town we've got poor transportation, who's going to take care of that? People are going to do what they do or vote the way they're going to vote based on enlightened self-interest.

So they get to the point that they're going to vote, they're going to start thinking about their civic responsibility. I'm not worried about that. I just want to get them to the polls. I trust the people when they get to the polls.

BLOCK: Was there some moment, some eureka moment when you sat up in bed and thought, I've got an idea here, lottery, voting, mix them up?

OSTERLOH: My eureka moment was riding around on that bike when I was running for governor. I had a lot of time to think and it was pretty hot out there, but I had something to think about. I said, well, you know, capitalism has worked for our country, let's apply capitalism to voting. Incentives work for everything else, let's use them here.

BLOCK: Well, Mark Osterloh, thanks very much for talking with us.

OSTERLOH: It's a pleasure.

BLOCK: That's Mark Osterloh. He says he's gathered enough signatures to get his measure on the ballot this fall, a measure to award one voter every two years one million dollars.

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