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Voting for dollars: It's not nutty, it's the latest idea to boost turnout in L.A. elections

Would you vote if you might win a prize? And will that idea cure L.A.'s low voter turnout? Stay tuned

Here's Nathan Hochman's get-out-the-vote message: Fill in a ballot and you could win thousands! In a city where nearly 80% of the electorate chose not to vote in the last mayoral election, does he have your attention? Hochman, the head of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission, made a national splash when he floated the idea that L.A. could improve its dismal voter turnout in municipal elections by offering a cash prize lottery to voters. Appointed to the commission in 2011, Hochman is a former Justice Department prosecutor now in private practice who hopes the City Council and the voters will take L.A.'s poor voter turnout seriously, and here he seriously considers and defends the ramifications of awarding Angelenos a cash prize for casting a ballot.

Why is voter turnout a matter for the Ethics Commission?

We're in charge of matching funds — the public money the city sets aside to help finance municipal political campaigns. Among the purposes of matching funds is to provide voters with information, which in turn is supposed to increase participation. When you find that we put out close to $10 million in the last election and turnout slumped rather than increased, you ask, what can we do about this crisis? Analyze voter turnout in the 2013 race and compare it to the last 12 years, to the 2001 election — it was shocking, going from 37% to roughly 20%. We're in a downward spiral on voter turnout, and money in the elections is on a huge upward spiral.

So the city's getting less bang for its matching-funds buck?

We are. [City Council President] Herb Wesson described it as an acute crisis. The Elections Reform Commission had good ideas, including changing elections to even-numbered years, when federal elections occur, but those ideas would take years to implement. And while we're waiting, we have progressively worse voter turnout. So what can we do — maybe an out-of-the-box solution — to deal with this?

And that's how the lottery idea arose. How would it work?

Checking off your name when you go to the precinct would be your entry into the drawing. With an absentee ballot, you submit the ballot and they check off your name as a registered voter — that would enter your name into the drawing. Then the question was, how much? If we used 1% of the matching funds, $100,000, as prize money, how would we divide that? Should we do one prize? Or $50,000 and two $25,000? A hundred for $1,000 each?

Tommy's or Pink's periodically gives out free hot dogs or hamburgers. People will stand in line for an hour for a $4.95 hamburger or hot dog, but they won't take the time to vote. If people are willing to do that for such a small incentive, [maybe] being entered into this drawing will bring people to the ballot box.

Is this legal?

It's legal in California as long as there's not a federal election on the ballot. California and Alaska are the only two states that allow an incentive for voting.

Has this been tried elsewhere?

In California there've been gift cards, free food — bring your voting stub as proof you voted and you can get a cup of coffee — but it hasn't been tried by a city government.

In Australia, people are fined for not voting — $20 — and if you don't pay up or provide an excuse the government likes, the fine goes up.

They've got some of the highest voter turnout in Western countries, over 90%. In some ways it's a pretty un-American concept, penalizing people for not exercising their constitutional right. So our thought turned to incentives: What carrots could we offer?

But is it also un-American to reward people for doing their civic duty?

The obvious criticism of the plan is, are you commercializing the right to vote? Are you debasing it by offering incentives? One response to the criticism turned to jury service. At the end of the service, they don't just say thank you very much, they offer you $15 a day and pay for your mileage. Nobody thinks that by receiving a check for jury service that somehow you're debasing the right to serve on a jury.

What has to happen to make this happen?

Our recommendation to the rules committee was that the City Council do this, either by a council vote with general funds or with [surplus] matching funds, which would require a ballot initiative because the matching funds program was enshrined in the city charter. Either way it has to go through the council [first]. A pilot program could [be] put in effect as early as the March 2015 elections.

Isn't that a paradox, needing to go to the voters, and maybe getting a 20% turnout, to accomplish something that could create an 80% turnout?

That's sort of the irony.

What about options like moving city elections to the dates of better-turnout federal elections, or online or vote-by-mail only?

There are some pros for elections in off years — [not] competing for media space and TV time that you have in federal election years. There's more, shall we say, bandwidth for local elections. The con is voter burnout, too many elections.

You can't [move city elections to even years] until about 2020, according to the Elections Reform Commission.

One criticism is that you'd bring a lot of uninformed voters to the polling place to cast votes merely because they want to enter the drawing. The response President Wesson highlighted was this: Voters get a lot of information through their mailboxes, social media, on TV. When you know you're not going to vote, you're not going to pay attention to the information coming across your radar. But if you think you're going to vote, and the reason is you want to enter a drawing, you end up paying more attention to that information you're getting.

Once you break the downward cycle of not voting and put people into a pattern of voting, they get used to being informed on issues and making intelligent decisions because they know they're going to the polling place anyway.

These voters who may initially want to enter a drawing — if they're going to the effort of voting, they might become more informed.

An Op-Ed in The Times criticized this idea and said instead you need big ballot issues, big things at stake, to turn out voters.

The special election we just had for the LAUSD board — do you know what the turnout was? Under 10%, for a seat that might be a swing seat on the board, a seat that serves a population that really needs its representation. When you're facing crisis numbers, do you sit on your hands or do you try something innovative?

You're aware that this has been getting a lot of the standard "nutty Los Angeles" headlines.

If all you get is some headline saying "L.A. is paying people to vote," the natural reaction is there's something wrong with this. But when you have the full discussion that this is a pilot program, we're dealing with a crisis, we pay for jury service — then people nod their heads and say, "This is worthy of serious consideration." How Los Angeles pulls this off, I leave to better minds. If someone has a better idea, we're all ears. My belief is that if you don't vote, you don't feel you own any responsibility for your government, whereas if you cast a ballot, you own a little piece of the process.

You had to know I was going to ask this: What's your voting record?

If I go back to college [days], there were times I was traveling abroad and I don't know if I was able to get an absentee ballot, so I can't tell you 100%, but certainly recently, I show up at every election. I probably vote absentee more than anything else.

This interview was edited and condensed.

patt.morrison@latimes.com

Twitter: @pattmlatimes

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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