Yesterday, the Los Angeles Ethics Commission voted to recommend that the City Council look at using cash prizes to lure a greater number of people to the polls.
In an unanimous vote the panel said it wanted City Council President Herb Wesson’s Rules, Elections and Intergovernmental Relations Committee to seriously consider the use of financial incentives and a random drawing during its elections, possibly as soon as next year.
“Maybe it’s $25,000, maybe it’s $50,000. That’s where the pilot program comes in — to figure out what … number and amount of prizes would actually get people to the voting box,” said Nathan Hochman, Los Angeles Ethics Commission president. Depending on the source of city funds, the idea could require a ballot measure. Commissioners said they were unsure how large the prizes should be or how many should be offered, saying a pilot program should first be used to test the concept.
The problem of low turnout is being highlighted after only 23% percent of registered voters cast ballots in last year’s mayoral election, and preliminary numbers indicate that turnout this week in a special school board election fell below 10%.
While many are intrigued by the idea of a drawing or lottery, there are potential legal hurdles. Federal law prohibits people from accepting payment in exchange for voting. However, Ethics Commissioner Jessica Levinson, an attorney and professor at Loyola Law School, who voted to pursue the lottery concept, contends that statute would not apply in an election where there are no federal positions on the ballot.
Similarly, California law prohibits people from using money or gifts to ensure that voters cast ballots for any particular person or measure and money cannot be used to keep people from voting. Supporters point out that a lottery would simply require that people enter the voting booth–not cast a particular vote.
Election Day prizes are not the only idea on the drawing board. Other recent suggestions have recommended that the city boost turnout by moving from odd- to even-numbered election years. That move could take several years because it would probably require turning the city’s election operations over to the LA County registrar-recorder/clerk.