2006 voter turnout: Prospects high
A $1 million prize, early voting, and the moving back of elections are all aimed at increasing turnout.
In Arizona, an initiative on this fall's ballot calls for rewarding one lucky voter with a $1 million prize, just for going to the polls.
In Florida, some communities are switching local elections from March to November, in an effort to increase voter turnout.
And in Maryland, the state legislature has approved early voting at some polling places – a turnout-boosting measure that's currently on hold, pending a court ruling on its legality.
Across the US, state and local officials – as well as political organizations – are mounting efforts to increase the percentage of registered US voters who actually exercise the franchise. Relatively low turnout is a perennial feature of American politics, particularly in mid-term elections, such as 2006.
But gimmicks such as Arizona's voter lottery generally don't work, say experts. Some may even be illegal. What the nation really needs, they say, are patient, grassroots registration drives.
This year special efforts could be beside the point. The 2006 midterms may feature the biggest generator of turnout known to US politics: a huge issue, the war in Iraq, that has polarized voters.
"There is no question but voter turnout will be up this year, compared to the last midterm in 2002," says Curtis Gans, director of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate at American University in Washington.
During the past 20 years, the percentage of eligible voters who have cast ballots in midterm elections has never risen above 40 percent.
But the most recent trend has been up, according to figures published in the National Journal. The eligible-voter turnout of 2002 was 39.5 percent, up from 38.1 percent in the previous midterm, 1998.
The turnout for presidential years is generally much higher: 60.3 percent of eligible voters in 2004, for instance.
Still, that means that from 40 to 60 percent of citizens who could help determine the direction of the country don't bother to try. State officials and nongovernmental groups have long tried to address this issue – and this year they're considering some unusual tactics.
Take what might be called the Powerball voting initiative in Arizona. It's the brainchild of Mark Osterloh, a losing 2002 candidate for the Democratic nomination for Arizona governor.
This idea calls for using unclaimed proceeds from the state lottery to reward one lucky voter with $1 million. Mr. Osterloh managed to collect enough signatures to get his Who Wants to Be a Millionaire Voter initiative on this fall's ballot, as state Proposition 200.
If it passes, turnout will jump to 95 percent, predicted Osterloh to the nonpartisan state information organization Stateline.org. He's vowed to press the issue in other states.
But experts decry it as possibly illegal, given that it might constitute paying for votes – or, strictly speaking, one vote.
"It's a bad idea," says Mr. Gans.
Broward County, Fla., is trying something more traditional. City elections, long held in March, are moving to November. Two municipalities – Weston and Southwest Ranches – are moving their local races to this fall; at least three more will move in the next election in 2008.
City votes were originally put in the spring to get out from the shadow of more prominent state and national races. Now, they are moving back to get more people to vote, according to county officials.
And Maryland is trying early voting. Maybe.
Earlier this year, the Democratic- dominated Maryland General Assembly voted to open selected voting places to those who wanted to cast ballots early. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) vetoed the measure, saying it invited fraud, and that the early voting sites selected favored Democrats.
The legislature overrode the veto. But earlier this month a county judge put the effort on hold, ruling that the state constitution says elections must take place on a specific day. The Court of Appeals, Maryland's highest court, will hear arguments on the case this Friday.
Efforts that aim to make voting easier don't necessarily end up increasing turnout in the end, notes Gans, who is one of the premier scholars of US voting. They just make if easier for those who plan to vote anyway.
They suffer from what he calls a "differential of information." What would happen if something politically crucial occurred between the opening of early voting, and election day, such as a terrorist attack or stock market meltdown?
"That's an accident waiting to happen," says Gans.
The most effective turnout measures, experts say, are those that increase the pool of registered voters. That can be tedious – setting up tables at shopping malls or waylaying prospective voters on streets – but it generally works.
Then there are the efforts of the parties themselves to get their own voters to the polls. Turnout may be up this year in part due to the political polarization caused by the Iraq war. A recent Cook Political Report/RT Strategies poll found that 44 percent of respondents rated themselves "highly interested" in the upcoming elections, a good indicator of turnout.
That could spell bad news for the GOP. Among this motivated group, Democrats had a 19-percentage point lead in a general Congressional ballot, 52 to 33 percent.