Frustrated by the appallingly low turnout in local elections, the nonprofit Southwest Voter Registration Education Project is planning a cash lottery — or voteria — to get voters to the polls for the Los Angeles Board of Education District 5 race. Anyone who legitimately casts a ballot in the May 19 contest between incumbent Bennett Kayser and challenger Ref Rodriguez will be automatically entered into the drawing. After the election is certified, the group will randomly select one person from the voting pool.
The winner gets $25,000. The losers are the people who still believe in the integrity of the democratic process.
This gimmick perverts the motivation to vote. It demeans the value of voting. And it’s the most superficial pseudo-solution to a very real problem in Los Angeles, which is the pervasive civic malaise that prevents so many eligible voters from feeling truly engaged. In fact, the voteria only underscores the cynical view that people don’t care about their local government anymore and the only way to get them to vote is to bribe them.
When the Los Angeles Ethics Commission floated a similar lottery proposal last year, The Times called it one of the worst ideas put forward in a long time. But even that was better than the voteria. Why? Because at least a city-sponsored contest would be clearly non-ideological and not aimed at influencing one particular election. The Southwest Voter Registration Education Project is a well-meaning organization with a long history of working to increase voter participation in the Latino community — but what if this cash prize ends up being advertised more heavily in the Latino community in District 5? What if it brings out more Latinos than, say, African Americans? Is it fair that one demographic has more of a financial incentive to vote? What if in the next school board election an African American group decides it should pay voters even more to turn out? Or a Republican group? Or the teachers union or a charter school group? This is a troubling precedent that could easily devolve into an arms race among interest groups trying to get out their votes to influence an election.
Yes, low turnout is bad. It allows the few to make decisions for the many, and that undermines the integrity of our representative democracy. Angelenos were so concerned about low turnout that they voted in March to move local elections to June and November of even-numbered years to coincide with gubernatorial and presidential elections. That is a meaningful reform that should boost turnout simply by capturing local voters who show up for higher-profile elections. Groups like the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project are right to look for innovative ways to engage voters. But dangling money in front of polling places is not the way to do it.