Paternalism in Arizona

NPR reports:

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.

I would ask two questions about this proposal: Will it work?  Should it be undertaken?  I think “no” should be the answer to both questions. 

Will it work? Many experts argue that it is rational not to vote. The act of voting involves costs and benefits. The costs are getting information about the candidates, going to the polling place, standing in line and so on. The benefits to the voter are the benefits a voter expects his preferred candidate or party to deliver multiplied by the probability that his vote will swing the election to his preferred party or candidate. That probability is very low, which means that the benefits a voter can expect from voting are also quite low. They are much lower, in fact, than the costs of voting. 

The lottery measure proposes to add to these benefits the expected value of a $1 million dollar payoff. However, that value is also quite low.  2,038,069 people voted in Arizona in 2004.  Each would have had an equal chance of winning the payout. Hence, the expected value of the lottery payment in 2004 would have been 49 cents. Would that additional 49 cents attract many more voters to the polls in Arizona? It seems unlikely. Imagine that every voter was promised two quarters to come to the polls and vote. Would that tip their cost-benefit calculations toward voting? 

Of course, we might say that the state of Arizona should exploit the irrationality of voters who lack information about the number of voters or the ability to calculate an expected value. States already exploit such shortcomings with state lotteries. In that regard, the proposal seems unseemly, even immoral. 

Advocates would no doubt argue that the state might exploit voter irrationality for the higher good of getting people to the polls. Is voting such a valuable activity that the state should force taxpayers to subsidize it? 

Clearly voting is not valuable for those who choose not to vote. The justification for subsidizing voting and the lottery must be that voting provides benefits to people other than the voters who choose not to vote. At one time, experts thought non-voters differed substantially in outlook from voters. If so, voters were a skewed sample of the electorate, and elections did not contain all information about the preferences of “the people.” Studies have shown, however, that non-voters do not differ substantially in ideology or in partisanship from those who do not vote. If everyone voted, the outcomes of elections would change little if at all. It is unlikely, therefore, that society would gain much new information from the electorate by subsidizing an election lottery. 

In the end, for all the appearances of incentives and rational calculation, Mark Osterloh is just another paternalist who believes that people would be morally better if they participated in politics. He enlists the greed of the gambler to serve the endless crusade to “improve” the character of other people through state action. The proponents of the lottery inhabit a world where voting has replaced prayer, and politics has taken the place of religion. What is missing from this crusade, like other crusades before, is any sense that people should be left alone to make their own decisions about whether to vote and that whatever decision they make should be respected, even by the busybodies who think politics is next to godliness. 

And the unclaimed lottery money, of course, should be sent back to the people of Arizona through a tax cut.