A lottery proposal on the March 2020 primary ballot could increase Alabama’s voter participation in the presidential and U.S. Senate primaries.
“If this lottery bill is on the ballot on March the 3rd, you can expect another record-breaking turnout for a presidential primary,” Secretary of State John Merrill said this week.
About 1.26 million Alabamians voted in the 2016 presidential primary, which amounted to a 41 percent turnout.
When the state last had a vote on a lottery proposal in 1999, 52 percent of potential voters cast ballots. That was in an October special election with two other constitutional amendments on the ballot.
“I think it certainly boosts turnout,” David Mowery, a political consultant in Montgomery said about a lottery. “But trying to figure out who it helps is interesting.”
At the moment, the two competitive contests on that ballot are the Republican primary for U.S. Senate and a Democratic primary for president.
“The interesting thing to watch is, which side it increases more,” Mowery said. “(Lottery) has been seen as a Democrat issue for a long time, but now it appears Republicans are taking the lead on it.”
The Alabama Senate last week narrowly passed Senate Bill 220, a Republican proposal that calls for a paper lottery and allows Alabama to participate in multi-state “Mega Millions” jackpots, among others.
The legislation now needs House approval before it reaches voters next year.
Unlike 1999, voters could have more ballot choices in the 2020 primary. A Republican ballot will include the GOP candidates running to challenge Democrat U.S. Sen. Doug Jones. A Democratic ballot could include a crowded field of presidential nominee hopefuls who want to run against President Donald Trump in November.
And for those who don’t want to participate in the primaries, poll workers would offer a ballot with only the constitutional amendment, Merrill said.
The bill’s authors specified the March 2020 vote date in the legislation. But Jess Brown, a retired political science professor at Athens State University, said support for the proposal is more important than the election date.
“I think the factors of its success have less to do with turnout and more to do with who are perceived as winners in this bill,” Brown said.
As currently written, the lottery proposal is expected to generate about $167 million a year in revenue. That money would go toward paying off state debt and the General Fund, which funds non-education state agencies. It does not dedicate any money toward education.
“To leave the schools completely out, it’s going to be come one heck of a talking point for people who oppose it on moral grounds and for teacher groups, they won’t have a fire in their belly for it,” Brown said. “You really add an influential factor if you add educators.”
Senators last week rejected Sen. Arthur Orr’s amendment to allocate 25 percent of revenues toward education.
In 1999, 54 percent of voters said no to the lottery proposal backed by then-Gov. Don Siegleman. It would have dedicated $150 million a year to college scholarships, pre-kindergarten programs and computers in schools.
Supporters of the lottery outspent opponents 3-to-1 in promotional advertising, according to media reports from then. Church leaders organized against the proposal.
Brown said there is the potential for significant spending on a pro-lottery campaign in 2020.
The Poarch Band of Creek Indians, a federally regulated entity that operates casinos in Atmore, Wetumpka and Montgomery, support the Senate-passed proposal. They argued against a competing Senate lottery proposal that also sought to add legal protections to the state’s non-Indian casinos and the electronic bingo games they offer.
“They have the money to sponsor one heck of a lottery campaign,” Brown said.