New Ploys Devised to Boost Voter Turnout

Political scientists expect voter turnout to be up nationally in this November's mid-term elections, despite lackluster participation in most primaries. Amid the anticipated upswing, Arizona and Michigan voters are being targeted with new tactics to get them to cast ballots.

Arizona will decide whether to make people who show up at the polls eligible for a $1 million jackpot. In Michigan, 80,000 people who've voted only sporadically were put on notice by a political consultant that, if they didn't vote this year, they'd be outed as slackers to their friends and neighbors.

The two efforts use different tacks to make voters feel like they have something personal at stake in voting, no matter which candidates they support.

Mark Osterloh, a politically active Arizona doctor, wants his state to use unclaimed lottery proceeds to reward one lucky voter $1 million for casting a ballot. He's managed to get the issue on the November ballot, with the proviso that the measure would take effect in this election.

"I bet you even homeless people that are citizens would register to vote, so I think we could get about 95 percent (turnout) ultimately," Osterloh predicted.

If Arizona voters approve, Osterloh plans to push for similar measures in 22 other states that let citizens offer ballot initiatives.

Osterloh's idea has its critics.

Curtis Gans, director of the Center for Study of the American Electorate, said it degrades the importance of voting.

"This is no better than handing people money to vote. We want people to vote thoughtfully because they want to contribute to our political system, not because they're out to win the lottery," he said.

Michigan political consultant Mark Grebner is taking a different tack. His firm, Practical Political Consulting Inc. , maintains a sophisticated list of Michigan voters. Grebner has mined that list to find people who are knowledgeable about politics, but don't vote.

In partnership with Yale University researchers, Grebner is sending 80,000 voters notices warning that, if they didn't show up to the polls, their friends and neighbors might be told about it.

His effort is also causing a stir. Detroit News editorial page editor Nolan Finley got one of Grebner's mailers and complained about it in a column. Finley told Stateline.org that he normally doesn't vote in primaries, because it would require him to identify with a political party, which poses problems for him as a journalist.

He said he doubted Grebner's method would work and questioned the premise of shaming voters in a democracy where voting is "a responsibility, not an obligation."

"In Michigan, we are now in the midst of probably one of the worst economic crises in the country. And that still won't motivate people to the polls, so I don't think nasty little letters to your neighbors will do it," Finley said.

Far more reliable than gimmicks are competitive races where voters believe they have a clear interest in electing one candidate or the other, George Mason University political science professor Mike McDonald said.

Both McDonald and Gans predict that turnout will be a little higher this year than it was in 2002, the last midterm election, especially because more seats are going to be in play as Republicans' strength nationally has waned.

Polls show that voters have soured on Congress and President Bush. Whether that dissatisfaction will hurt just Republicans or all incumbents - including Democrats who control state legislatures and executive mansions - is still open to debate.

"There are some Democrats, particularly more at the state level where things aren't going well in the state, that could be swept up in this anti-incumbent mood," McDonald said.

Pointing to huge losses by Democrats in 1994 and 1966, Gans said Republicans would feel the brunt of the electorate's anger.

"People don't vote anti-incumbent. They vote anti-the-party-in-power. I've never seen a bipartisan 'throw all of the bums out' (election) ever. There's no history of that," he said.