Voting Is a Sucker’s Bet

The Philadelphia mayor's race was a close one in 1999, and next month's rematch between John Street and Sam Katz promises to be just as close, which means we can look forward to no end of editorials and public-service announcements reminding us of the importance, the virtue, the solemn civic duty involved in voting. Nonetheless, you can safely bet that fewer than half of Philadelphia's registered voters will show up at the polls in November.

As for me, I haven't voted since the 2000 Presidential faux-election, and I doubt that I will ever bother to vote again. The ballot debacle in Florida, ending in the Supreme Court's anointment of Bush the Younger, just confirmed for me once and for all that my single vote has never had any meaning or value, and that voting is for suckers.

It's not just because all politicians are alike, or because both parties are owned by big business, or any of the other simpleminded excuses for avoiding politics entirely. No one's vote ever really counts, because nearly every narrow electoral victory, whether it's by 50 votes or 1,000, gets drop-kicked over to the state and federal courts, where the party in control can always find a pliable judge and a legal pretext to bend the result. In Florida in 2000, when the largely Republican U.S. Supreme Court stopped a recount and gave the election to Bush, the five majority justices had no problem telling Gore's voters that their visits to the polls had constituted nothing more than 50 million fools' errands.

All the rah-rah get-out-and-vote propaganda each election season doesn't consider that among our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is the right to not be taken for fools. Far from being a stupid or overly cynical act, non-voting gives voice to the same deep-seated skepticism that everyone develops to some degree during a lifetime of watching TV commercials. Most American adults hang up on telemarketers, throw out junk mail, avoid buying time-share condos in Florida — and most Americans, most of the time, don't vote.

The civic-minded handwringers so intent on “Rocking the Vote” each November should read some of their own clever studies on the subject. When the Presidential election of 1996 got the lowest turnout in 72 years — less than 50 percent of citizens of voting age — the local Pew Charitable Trusts funded a project at Harvard to find out why Americans just don't vote they way they used to. Polls, surveys and focus groups in Pew's “Vanishing Voter” project discovered that it's a miracle voter turnout hasn't fallen lower. More than seven out of 10 adults, voters and non-voters alike, believe that most candidates “will say almost anything in order to get themselves elected” and “are more concerned with fighting each other than with solving the nation's problems.” When you look at it this way, withholding one's vote is a vote. It's a vote of no-confidence in an electoral system that needs to hit a crisis point and get an overhaul. And it might, if only more people cared enough to stop voting.

Why is it, after all, that more Americans gamble each year — fritter away their hard-earned money against tremendous odds — than vote? In 1998, an estimated 63 percent of us either bought a lottery ticket, made a casino wager, or bet on horses or bingo, while only 36 percent voted in Congressional elections.

Could it be that the gambling industry, despite its history of sleaze and corruption, has earned the public's trust in a way the electoral system hasn't? There are millions who take it on faith that while democracy may be rigged, the slots in Vegas are on the level. And at least with the lottery or the casinos, you know that if your number comes up, if you get blackjack or triple cherries, the Supreme Court can't make off with your winnings the way they can with elections.

So let's stop with all the voter-participation commissions, the nagging editorials and the sentimental public-service ads, which are about as credible as the average fitness infomercial. If more voter participation is all we really want, then let's bring in some professionals with a proven track record. Let's hire casino and lottery officials to run the next election.

Powerball can't hold a match to the excitement provided by PowerBallot 2004. Maybe Pew and the Fox Network can put up a buck for every citizen of voting age, a $225 million jackpot, for the National Voter Lottery. The day after the next Presidential election, 50 finalists get picked, one from each state's electronic voting rolls, for a final drawing on national TV. You only qualify for the drawing if you're a registered voter, but here's the catch: If your name gets picked and you didn't vote the day before — you lose!

Turnout would hit 98 percent in no time. (With millions at stake, only a chump would risk being the one pathetic non-voter who missed out on a fortune because he stayed home to watch a Seinfeld rerun.) Later, election officials could huddle with their new friends from the casinos and figure out how to count the actual votes at least as reliably as the gambling industry counts its chips. But until that day, the only way to protect your vote from being stolen is by never voting again.