“You gotta be in it to win it.” That’s what they say about the lottery, or used to. Now some public officials in Los Angeles want to apply this logic — which is hard to argue with — to elections.
The Los Angeles Ethics Commission recently passed a resolution recommending that the city council establish an election lottery with cash prizes. Only residents who vote in city elections would be entered to win. As an experiment to increase voter turnout, it’s worth a shot.
In an ideal world, dangling prizes in front of voters wouldn’t be necessary. Even in this far-from-ideal world, it’s not the only or maybe even the best way to encourage voting: There’s moving local elections from spring to fall, for example. Or holding elections on weekends, as in Europe. Or expanding early voting, as well as the number of polling places.
Worthy ideas all. But effective? The evidence, for those reforms that have been tried, is thin. Some critics of the lottery idea see it as a cynical ploy that could harm the democratic process. But in countries that have compulsory voting — where there is a financial disincentive for not voting, the same as a financial incentive to vote — democracy has somehow survived.
In fact, the Australian experience suggests that compulsory voting, which produces turnout rates that hover around 95 percent, has improved the functioning of democracy by pushing candidates toward the center and away from partisan extremism. Could lotteries help the United States move in the same direction by pushing up turnout and forcing candidates to engage with a broader share of the electorate? It’s worth a try.
Across the country, local elections typically have extremely low turnout rates. Even in U.S. presidential elections, turnout averages less than 60 percent. Globally, the U.S. ranks 120th in voter turnout.
Los Angeles could do the nation a service by trying this experiment. (The marketing campaign writes itself: You Can Win Even if Your Candidate Doesn’t!)