L.A. won't offer prizes to voters in next year's election

A voter lottery? It's been considered in L.A. but won't be tried next year, Council President Herb Wesson says

A controversial proposal to offer cash prizes to Los Angeles voters is dead – at least for next year’s city elections.

Los Angeles City Council President Herb Wesson said this week that he wants more time to consider the idea of using money or other gifts to lure voters to the polls. For now, he is looking to persuade voters on March 3 to move city elections from odd- to even-numbered years -- when state and federal contests are held – beginning in 2020.

“I don’t want to overload the public,” Wesson said. “So I think we’re just going to focus on” the change in election dates.

Wesson and his colleagues have spent much of this year looking at proposals for improving L.A.’s dismal voter turnout, which fell to 23% in last year’s mayoral runoff election. Three months ago, the Ethics Commission caused a small uproar by recommending that Wesson’s Rules, Elections and Intergovernmental Relations Committee look at a lottery – one with prizes of $25,000 or $50,000 – as a tool for enticing Angelenos to cast ballots.

At the time, Wesson said he was intrigued by the idea. His colleagues were less enthusiastic. When a package of proposals for improving turnout came up for debate last month, Councilwoman Nury Martinez asked for the lottery idea to be removed and sent back to Wesson’s committee.

On Wednesday, Martinez said a lottery would have made “a mockery” of the city’s election system, doing little to make sure voters inform themselves on the candidates and ballot measures.

“Bribing individuals to vote ... disrespects the people who put in the effort of educating themselves on the issues and voting,” Martinez said. “And it disrespects communities overall, by assuming that voters are only willing to vote because there’s a cash incentive.”

Federal law prohibits people from accepting payment in exchange for voting. But backers of an election-day lottery or drawing have argued that the statute wouldn’t apply to local contests that do not have any federal positions on the ballot.

Ethics Commission President Nathan Hochman had been pushing city leaders to test the cash prize concept during next year’s March municipal election, which is expected to have seven council seats, four school board seats and four community college board seats on the ballot. The idea also could have been used, he said, in the May runoff election.

“What will be disappointing is if the voter turnout in both those elections either equals or is worse than what we had in 2011,” he said. Turnout among L.A. voters in March 2011 was 14.1%.

Wesson spokesman Ed Johnson said the city is taking other steps to improve turnout next year. In March, the city will begin covering the cost of postage for voters who send their ballots by mail, he said. In May, the City Clerk will begin accepting ballots that arrive as many as three days after the election – as long as they were postmarked on or before election day or earlier.

Wesson also has begun meeting with officials at the Los Angeles Unified School District about having high school students assist poll workers in future elections. That concept – which is not expected to be implemented until after next year’s election -- is viewed as a way to make younger people more aware of, and interested in, voting.

Still, the change in election dates is considered to be the most significant proposal for increasing turnout.

Last month, the council sent voters Charter Amendment 1, which would switch Los Angeles city elections from March and May of odd-numbered years to June and November of even-numbered ones. Charter Amendment 2 would do the same thing for school board elections.

Hochman said he would still like to see a lottery tested the next time the city conducts a special election. But Johnson, the Wesson spokesman, left open the possibility that city officials might not consider the idea again.

Asked if Wesson plans to hold more meetings to discuss the lottery proposal, Johnson said: “I cannot guarantee that.”

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