LOS ANGELES—Imagine transforming the voting process—something considered an almost sacred fundamental right—into something akin to buying a lottery ticket. That’s what the Los Angeles city Ethics Commission would like to do to get more people to come out and vote.
Voter turnout is at record lows for Los Angeles city elections. Less than 20 percent of registered voters on average came to the polls in 2013, and less than 10 percent showed up for this month’s special school board election, according to official data.
City Ethics Commission President Nathan Hochman said the commission has been looking at many options to encourage people to vote, including penalizing people for not voting. Such a system is used in countries like Australia, where it brings more than 90 percent of people to the polls.
But another idea seemed more appealing.
“We decided that while sticks are an option, we’d take a look at carrots, incentives,” he said. “One of the incentives that City Council President Herb Wesson was very excited about was the notion of a voter drawing.”
After Wesson expressed his interest on Aug. 14, the Los Angeles Ethics Commission voted 3–0 to recommend that the city council consider lottery drawings with cash prizes as an incentive to increase voter turnout. The drawing could be used as soon as LA’s 2015 election.
The Ethics Commission proposed using surplus matching funds—which are given to candidates who agree to certain spending restrictions—to fund the lottery. Just one percent of these funds could supply four $25,000 prizes or one hundred $1,000 prizes.
But there has been criticism of the idea, too.
The LA Times Editorial Board called it “one of the worst ideas we’ve heard in a long time,” noting that it “fails to address the deeper reasons why people don’t vote,” including apathy, ignorance, or critical personal issues.
Others are concerned that monetary incentives could skew the outcome of an election by bringing uninformed voters to the polls. But the Ethics Commission says studies show that people who know they are going to vote are more likely to pay attention to the issues.
“If we weren’t dealing with a crisis, we wouldn’t be considering any of this,” Hochman said. “For the people who don’t want voter drawings as an answer, we invite you to come up with some other solution that will drive significant more numbers to the polls.”
Groups such as the Municipal Elections Reform Commission have suggested that changing the dates of city elections from odd- to even-numbered years to coincide with larger elections would help. They also recommend holding fewer special elections to save time and money for the city and voters. Hochman says these changes could take years.
Federal law prohibits paying people to vote, but the Ethics Commission says the federal law would not apply to a purely local election.
California and Alaska are the only two states that allow incentives for voting, although the money cannot be used to encourage people to vote for a specific candidate or measure.