By Charles Paolino
Home News Tribune, New Jersey
Who wants to be a millionaire?
That's the question Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan wants to ask potential voters — or, at least, that's one way to express the theme of a bill he's proposing in the state Legislature.
Diegnan, a Democrat representing the 18th District, is one of two legislators suggesting that a lottery be held each year on Dec. 31 for a million-dollar prize to be awarded a registered voter who cast a ballot that year in a primary or general election. Voters who participated in both the primary and general election would be entered twice in the lottery.
The payout would be financed from several sources, including 20 percent of state lottery winnings that go unclaimed each year — $30.6 million in fiscal 2005 — voluntary donations and investments of the prize fund.
This measure is suggested as a remedy for the lackluster turnouts in the state's elections. In November, for instance, with congressional districts, a U.S. Senate seat, and many local races on the ballot, only about 45 percent of registered voters bothered to take part.
Evidently the lottery proposal to deal with this lethargy doesn't have much support, and a spokesman for Gov. Jon S. Corzine responded to it by remarking that "most New Jerseyans would rather see significant and sustainable property-tax relief" — as though one precluded the other.
If it were to become law, this approach might have diminishing returns because the more it succeeded in getting voters to the polls the higher the odds would be against winning the million.
And, the idea begs the question of whether people whose motivation for voting is a chance to win a million ought to take part in the process. A person bent on getting rich quick might push buttons at random just to be included in the lottery.
It doesn't appear that anything is going to come of this proposal, but the problem still needs attention.
A low turnout makes it more likely that incumbents will be returned to office regardless of their merits, and that has far-reaching ramifications. It makes government more and more susceptible to influence from vested interests; it helps office holders become entrenched in the system and make a career out of what should be temporary public service; and it contributes to unethical and corrupt behavior.
If there is an incentive needed in the electoral system it is an incentive for elected officials to act always with the public's best interest in mind — and nothing would assure that better than large electoral turnouts that challenge incumbency.
What ought to be seriously considered, for example, is holding general elections over two days — Saturdays and Sundays.
Many people who say they don't vote because their weekday schedule won't allow it probably are being disingenuous, but weekend elections would remove that impediment for virtually every working person, and it would allow religious people to observe their sabbath on one day and vote on another.
Two-day elections would have one other benefit that I mention with apologies to some of my colleagues: It would undercut the frenzy among some news media to report the results of an election while people are still voting.