Stop wringing your hands over low voter participation, America! A modest proposal for achieving 100% participation rates. Forever.
By Matt Miller

(FORTUNE Magazine) – IF YOU THINK LOW VOTER turnout is killing American democracy, listen to my rabbi's wife.

No kidding. Didi Carr Reuben's idea is simple and sure to work: Turn the election into a lottery. The stub that's proof you voted would be your ticket. Prizes could range from $10 million for the winner to dozens of $1 million runners-up.

Does anyone doubt this would lift turnout from today's pathetic 50% in presidential years (and one-third of eligible voters in off-years) toward 100%? Say goodbye to old arguments over whether nonvoters feel powerless or pleased. It's all moot when everybody has to vote to win.

Imagine the excitement on Nov. 2 if this scheme were in place. Firms would make sure workers had time to vote. Families would coax all their cousins to the polls. As night fell, we'd huddle round the tube to see who would take office--and to learn who had really won! A rapt nation would hold its breath, marinating in the twin dramas of participatory democracy and randomly redistributed wealth.

"Peter Jennings back again," we'd hear. "With polls now closed on the West Coast, ABC News is predicting that John Kerry is the next President ... and Susan Johnson has just won $10 million! In a moment we'll go to Bush headquarters for what is expected to be a very compassionate concession speech, but first George Stephanopoulos is live in South Central Los Angeles with America's freshly minted multimillionaire and single mother ..."

Depending on how many winners were staked, and how generously, the cost of this guaranteed 100% turnout plan could be as low as $15 million each election, or as high as $500 million. The feds could easily finance it as they do presidential campaign matching funds today.

But the more creative fix would be for a handful of tycoons to endow the election lottery in perpetuity. Silicon Valley is overflowing with weary new zillionaires who fret that they can't find the kind of "high impact" philanthropy worthy of their world-beating natures. Well, how does raising voter turnout from 50% to 100% for eternity sound? Come to think of it, it's also a terrific corporate sponsorship opportunity: We could let Coke, Anheuser-Busch, and other civic-minded firms pick up the tab in exchange for letting them advertise on the stub that serves as your ticket.

If you think the whole scheme sounds pie-in-the-sky, I have two words for you: Mark Osterloh. Osterloh, 52, is a Tucson-based physician and gadfly who helped pass Arizona's clean-money campaign-finance reform in 1998 before running a losing longshot race for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2002. Today he's the force behind Arizonans for Voter Rewards, a group aiming to put an initiative on the state's 2006 ballot that creates the nation's first election lottery. He's clearly been in telepathic contact with my rabbi's wife on all this, but what he really needs are some angel investors to fund a signature-gathering drive after next month's election. Calling George Soros!

"All you have to do is show a dramatic impact in one state," Osterloh says, and the idea will spread like wildfire. That's the virtue of America's whole "laboratories of democracy" thing in the first place. Osterloh thinks this may the most promising lever available to boost turnout among lower-income and minority citizens. (Of course, lower-income and minority citizens tend to vote for Democrats. Osterloh may be civic-minded, but he's still very much a man of his party.) An early poll his group has commissioned suggests the idea would pass if it gets on the ballot. Osterloh says that Arizona's Native American tribes have already endorsed the concept, and who knows better than they do about the power of a jackpot to galvanize political engagement?

A principal virtue of the idea is that it turns the usual anti-lottery argument on its ear: Instead of preying on poor people, who fritter away needed cash in dreams of hitting it big, this lottery empowers the poor by giving them--by giving everyone, actually--a stake in voting. In one stroke it might do more for the disenfranchised than a dozen Jesse Jackson campaigns. (And a note to network executives: Just think of the ratings!)

Sure, it would be nice if such measures weren't necessary. After all, other advanced democracies don't need such gimmicks. And yes, sober guardians of the public weal will tut-tut disapprovingly over the idea of encouraging folks to vote just for a shot at the cash. Why, some of these ruffians may have failed to watch The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer adequately during the campaign, or skipped their League of Women Voters briefing books altogether!

The critiques are well-meaning, I'm sure. (And the problem is surely fixable. For example, we could have Charlie Gibson or Gwen Ifill say a secret password of some kind midway through the televised presidential debates that voters must correctly repeat to collect their lottery ticket at the polls.) But maybe we should simply admit that greasing the wheels a little around election time is a proud American tradition--like the "walking-around money" both political parties gave to friendly neighborhood groups to help turn out their vote. Like other good government moves, an election lottery just brings the payoff into the open--and democratizes it.

Bottom line: We've had decades of handwringing and civics lectures while voting continues to plunge. This is America, dammit. If everything else pays, why shouldn't voting?

MATT MILLER ( is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and author of The Two Percent Solution: Fixing America's Problems in Ways Liberals and Conservatives Can Love.