Bribing the mathematically challenged

In an attempt to persuade more people to vote, the state of Arizona is organising an election day lottery. One lucky voter will receive $1,000,000. Wow! What an idea. In 2004 roughly two million people voted in Arizona. While a one in two million chance of winning is admittedly rather better than most lotteries, it is still a pretty paltry chance. So who will be persuaded to turn out to vote because of this offer? Who will those extra voters be?

For a one in two million chance of winning one million dollars to be a good bet, you have to value your stake at less than 50 cents. Your 'stake' in this case is the time you spend on the process, including applying for an absentee ballot or travelling to and from the polling station. Add in any time you choose to spend learning about the candidates or issues.

Let's assume that these extra voters don't bother learning about the candidates or issues. Can they really get to the polling station, vote, and get home again in half an hour? Let's be charitable and assume that they can. In other words, the extra voters will be people who value their time at less than $1 an hour, far less than the minimum wage. Oh, and they have made no effort whatsoever to acquaint themselves with the reasons for holding the election or anything that is at stake.

The other group of people attracted by these odds are those too stupid to understand how odds are calculated. These two groups, those who do not understand mathematics and those with skills that do not earn them the minimum wage may, of course, overlap.

Remind me, why exactly does Arizona want these people voting? Is the governor under the impression that the stupid are more likely to vote for her? In Australia, where voting is compulsory, some 5% of people simply vote for the first name on the ballot paper. It is called the Aardvark vote. Perhaps someone has let this slip to Arizona's Secretary of State, Jan Brewer.

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