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Ideas We Should Steal: Vote…And Win The Lottery

Ideas We Should Steal: Vote…And Win The Lottery

Later today, The Citizen will announce its own get out the vote plan. Stay tuned!

[Ed. Note: Since this story originally ran, the results of SVREP’s voting lottery came in: Voter turnout in the district went up, from 46 percent to 80 percent among those who had heard of votería.]

March 3 was a bad day for Democracy in Los Angeles. It was the primary election for LA City Council and School Board seats—those positions that help determine the future of the city and its schools—but by day’s end, just 16 percent of the city’s 1.8 million registered voters had cast a ballot. In the city’s 5th district, the numbers were even worse—just 12 percent came out to the polls. It was one of the lowest turnouts in Los Angeles history. And for Antonio Gonzalez, president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, it was the last straw.

“I mean: No one voted,” says Gonzalez, whose nonprofit aims to increase voter participation among Latinos throughout the southwestern United States. “We just couldn’t sit on the sidelines anymore while this keeps happening.”

So with three weeks to go before the general election in May, Gonzalez introduced a radical notion, not just for Los Angeles, but for any jurisdiction in America: A lottery that would randomly pay $25,000 to someone who voted in the school board election in the city’s 5th district, a heavily-Latino area of Southeastern L.A. that also includes the neighborhoods of Silver Lake and Los Feliz. The race was between an incumbent and a challenger, with little publicity and little else going on. “It was like going into the bowels of the earth to detect neutrinos,” says Gonzalez. “We didn’t want any other interference, so we could test this experiment.”

Behind closed doors, Gonzalez suspects the whispers were the same as they are in every major city in America, including Philadelphia: Political leaders don’t really want more voters at the polls because they don’t really want change.

The idea for Votería—a play on the Spanish word for lottery, “lotería”—originated with the city’s Ethics Commission, which was charged earlier this year with finding ways to increase voter turnout. One of their ideas—a cash prize—was soundly defeated by City Council. The commission then approached Gonzalez, who at first refused to consider it. But then March 3 happened. “They caught me in a weak moment,” he recalls.

Using money that SVREP had on hand, Gonzalez spent $50,000 to hire a lawyer—who decided a lottery is illegal in a federal race, but okay for a local one; build a web page; and market Votería through Spanish and English media and with a local celebrity blogger. That drew the attention of a professor at Loyola Marymount University, who offered to conduct a study of the experiment, to determine if Votería actually increased the vote. Meanwhile, free publicity—in the form of denunciations—rained down on SVREP, including from The Los Angeles Times editorial page. “This gimmick perverts the motivation to vote,” the April 21 editorial read. “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 Votería 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.”

Gonzalez says no one—not even Latino elected officials with whom his group works closely—supported him. “Everyone was worried,” Gonzalez says. “I got threatening emails: ‘You piece of shit.’ They called me a front, anti-union. But a prize is neutral. Anyone could win it.” In public, Gonzalez says they all said the same thing: That they want informed voters, not the rabble. Behind closed doors, Gonzalez suspects the whispers were the same as they are in every major city in America, including Philadelphia: They don’t really want more voters at the polls because they don’t really want change.

“What we have in local governance in cities in America is a dictatorship of the informed,” Gonzalez notes. “I say, Let’s give the rabble a chance.”

With only three weeks and limited resources before the general election, Voteria’s reach was bound to be limited. But even on a small scale, the project seems to have worked. Voter turnout for the 5th district had been projected at between 6 and 8 percent; actual turnout on May 12 was closer to 10 percent—a 25 percent leap over a similar election in 2011. (For comparison, only 5 percent came out to vote in a neighboring district.) Loyola Marymount’s Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles, interviewed 560 5th district voters after they cast their ballots. Sixteen percent of them had heard of Votería before they went to the polls; 20 percent of those said Votería was why they voted. “The numbers are small,” Guerra acknowledges. “But the proportion of voters that represents is pretty tremendous. What it shows is that if they spent more resources to increase the number of people who heard of Votería, they could significantly increase the turnout.”

“What we have in local governance in cities in America is a dictatorship of the informed,” Gonzalez notes. “I say, Let’s give the rabble a chance.”

Guerra also conducted a controlled study of Votería by distributing 21,000 flyers to registered voters before the election—7,000 got information aboutVotería; 7,000 got information just about the upcoming election; 7,000 got information about the state’s water crisis. Over the next several weeks, Guerra says he will compare voting data from the county with the people to whom he sent flyers to see whether those informed about the lottery showed up in greater numbers. If they did, Gonzalez says he plans to hold another lottery in the next election, perhaps over a wider area of the city or even throughout the southwest. He contends it would be a good use of the nonprofit’s money—and even a way to raise funds.

“To contact 1 million people individually to change their behavior would cost millions of dollars,” he says. “We could spent $100,000 on prize money, and $300,000 to promote it. We could potentially blow this all up.”

Could a Philly version of Votería work here? Is it even legal? Philadelphia election attorney Adam Bonin thinks it is. He says the federal anti-bribery statute says you can’t pay someone to vote in a particular way, for a particular person— not that you can’t pay someone to vote, period. But like most of Gonzalez’s critics, Bonin is not enamored of the idea. “I would rather  be part of a civic culture that values democracy and values voting than these sorts of incentives,” Bonin says.

Like in Los Angeles, our City Council is not likely to back a voting lottery. Who would fight for the funds to pay for more voters, when that means their jobs might be on the line? National campaigns like President Obama’s spend millions to bring their voters to the polls; locally, ward leaders (theoretically) reach out to voters who are in line with the city’s Democratic bosses. But they have not had much success. May’s primary, when only about 25 percent of registered Philadelphians voted, was actually a good showing for an off-year election—and that was to decide (most likely) who would be our next mayor. Instead, it would take a well-funded non-partisan group like SVREP to make this idea a reality—and to put up with the daggers that would be thrown in the process.

If there is anyone willing to hold a Philly voting lottery, Gonzalez has at least one warning he could offer: It’s much harder to give away $25,000 than you might think. Earlier this month, SVREP picked a winner from the rolls of people who voted in May. The winner thought it was a scam; when Gonzalez tried to explain about Votería, she was downright hostile, and then hung up the phone. The woman called back a while later, chagrined. But when she found out she had to fill out tax forms, and allow her name to be released to the public, she again balked. “I didn’t know it would be so hard to give away $25,000,” Gonzalez says. “It’s really, really hard.”

Gonzalez says the group picked another name this week—after alerting the press, so they would seem legit. This time, he thinks the winner believed him. And he expects to award the check on Friday—making one lucky voter, in one small election, $25,000 richer for doing nothing more than exercising his right as a citizen of a democracy.

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