Ivan Rojas didn’t recognize the phone number when his cell woke him up one recent morning. So he went back to sleep. Later, when he listened to the message, he decided it must be a crank call or a scam.
“Nowadays, you can’t trust anybody,” he said.
What else would explain someone telling him that he’d won the grand prize, $25,000, for a contest he did not knowingly enter?
And all because he voted.
An experiment in boosting chronic low-turnout local elections ended Friday when Rojas, a 35-year-old security guard, received a check for winning a lottery that included every voter in District 5 for the Los Angeles Board of Education.
“I was shocked,” Rojas said. “I still can’t believe it.”
The contest comes as officials are trying to get voters to the polls. In Los Angeles County only 31% of registered voters cast ballots in the November 2014 statewide election. Turnout was particularly low among Latinos, at only 23%. Figures for local elections are more anemic. Last year, L.A. City officials talked about giving out prizes in hopes of increasing turnout.
The May runoff election in Los Angeles pitted incumbent Bennett Kayser against Ref Rodriguez, who won in a district that includes the area north and east of downtown as well as the cities of southeast L.A. County.
The lottery was the brainchild of Southwest Voter Registration Education Project and its president, Antonio Gonzalez. A main focus of the nonprofit is increasing voter turnout, especially within the Latino community. The group also has recruited Latinos to run for office, although it cannot endorse candidates.
“People should participate in processes, like elections, that affect their lives,” Gonzalez said. “Our job is to increase that participation, and we will leave no stone unturned.”
The idea behind the lottery was to boost Latino turnout in a region of the school system that has regularly elected white candidates even though a large majority of its voters are Latino.
“The ideal is that people would vote out of a sense of civic duty,” said Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the School of Law at UC Irvine. “But it often does not work out that way.... This is a clever way to boost turnout. The interesting question is whether it will work.”
Chemerinsky expressed concern about using the strategy in only one area. “It must be done fairly,” he said. “All who vote must have an equal chance to win.”
A major dynamic in the campaign included huge spending by both sides from groups independent of the candidates, more of it on behalf of Rodriguez.
Through interviews with voters, researchers studied the results of the lottery, called Voteria — a spinoff of loteria, the Spanish word for lottery. Voters who’d heard of the contest were more likely to cast ballots for Rodriguez by a 2-to-1 ratio, according to the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University.
“Did Voteria potentially provide the margin of victory? It was very close,” said Fernando Guerra, the center director, who oversaw the survey. Without the boost from the lottery, “it means Rodriguez would have won barely, and it would have meant the possibility of a recount. It would have positioned Rodriguez going on the school board as a bare winner rather than a clear winner.”
In the final tally, Rodriguez received 53% of the vote compared with 47% for Kayser.
Guerra said he believes the lottery increased voter participation. It rose to more than 27,000, an increase of 6,000 over four years. And the percentage of voters was 1% higher, creeping up to 10%.
“My No. 1 conclusion is that the Voteria experiment has tremendous potential, the potential to really increase turnout,” Guerra said.
Voter turnout is difficult to interpret, with many complicating elements. For example, the total number of voters in District 5 declined between the March primary and the May general election, despite the lottery. The decline could have been caused by the lack of other races on the ballot. Yet in District 7, without it, the number of people who voted in the May election increased.
Rojas did not learn about the lottery until Election Day, when a poll worker mentioned it; he’d planned to vote anyway and quickly forgot about it after leaving his polling place.
The survey found that 16.4% of voters said they knew about it. About a quarter of those said the lottery made them more likely to vote. The influence was greater among Latinos and among low-income and underemployed voters, the survey found.
Gonzalez said he relied on social media and traditional sources, such as newspaper and television coverage, to spread the word. He also apparently had some help from one or both campaigns.
All respondents who said they’d heard of the lottery mentioned that it was brought up by campaign workers who visited their home. About 1 in 3 said they’d also heard of Voteria from a flier or mailer.
Neither Gonzalez’s group nor the candidates’ campaigns sent out fliers about the lottery, they said. But independent campaigns also formed to support Rodriguez and Kayser.
One postcard provided to The Times went to a voter with a Latino surname. It talks about Voteria in English and Spanish and includes an excerpt from a Times article — also in English and translated into Spanish — about the lottery. The card does not support a candidate and does not disclose the sender.
Kayser said he regarded the lottery as a thinly veiled attempt to help Rodriguez, although the former board member stopped short of blaming his loss on it.
The survey also found that, barring other factors, voters favored a candidate backed by unions, which Kayser was, over one supported by charter schools, like Rodriguez.
Charters are publicly funded and independently operated. Most are non-union, including a group of schools co-founded by Rodriguez.
Rojas said he was partly influenced by materials that blamed Kayser for a troubled effort to provide iPads to all students, teachers and campus administrators.
“The big fiasco of the iPad thing, that was a sort of a tipping point” persuading him to vote for Rodriguez, he said.
Rojas was the second person selected to win the lottery. The first, a woman from Cudahy, vowed to call the FBI when contacted. Gonzalez finally persuaded her that the contest was legitimate, but the woman declined the money when told that her name would be made public.
The survey relied on trained student volunteers to interview 312 voters as they left 15 randomly selected polling places. And a polling firm surveyed 250 vote-by-mail residents prior to the election.
The projected margin of error is 4%, higher for questions that were answered only by a portion of the survey group.