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Published: Monday, August 25, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

L.A.’s idea of using lottery to entice voters is a stinker

The Los Angeles Ethics Commission voted unanimously last week to ask the City Council to consider “financial incentives, such as a lottery system,” to draw voters to the polls.
You just know that if the city embraces this new low, then it will spread like a cancer across the land.
The City of Angels has a problem. As Ethics Commission President Nathan Hochman put it, campaign “spending is going up, and voter turnout is going down.” Last year, 75 percent of registered voters skipped the mayoral race, and less than 10 percent voted in a more recent school board special election. Hochman calls the dismal turnout “a crisis” and says “a crisis requires you to do something.”
That's the problem, too. Do-gooders have devised a number of ways to do something to make voting easier; early voting and absentee voting mean people no longer have to miss work to vote. Registering is so easy that when you apply for a driver's license, the Department of Motor Vehicles will offer you a registration form. City and state governments send out pamphlets with reliable information about ballot measures and candidates. Los Angeles gave $10 million in matching funds to candidates last year to make it easier for new people to run for office.
Yet the easier Los Angeles makes it to vote, to register, to run and to be informed the less Angelenos vote.
It seems that all the extra efforts by LA's left to increase voter turnout not only haven't averted the decline but also saw it accelerate.
The commission looked at compulsory voting — Australia fines nonvoters — but rejected the notion. Hochman says he prefers the carrot to the stick.
“My preference is that people show up at the polls because they want to show up at the polls,” Ethics Commissioner Jessica Levinson told me. The city also is looking at switching local elections from odd to even years, when people vote in state and federal races. Despite reservations, she voted for the proposal because she thinks the lottery is a “conversation” the city needs to have.
Sorry. That's the chicken way of defending a bad idea. The city needs this conversation like a 10-year-old needs to talk to Mom about getting a large snake tattoo.
I tell Hochman I think low turnout is partly a function of voters not seeing much difference between one rent-seeking liberal and another. In a political monoculture, candidates are ideologically fungible. There is less to vote for and less to vote against.
Oh, and politics make people feel dirty, so by all means, grease the polling place and that will boost turnout.
Hochman argues that voting gives people a stake in their government. Me? I think citizens have a duty to vote. But if adults don't want that stake, a lottery isn't going to improve their jaded view of politics.
Hochman told me that he thinks the scheme could be so successful that LA turnout could meet Australian levels. Then everyone would be in the habit of voting, he crowed, so Los Angeles could end the voting lottery.
He cannot believe that. If the scheme were to fail, City Hall probably would vote to pay more money to entice voters to the polls. In time, there wouldn't be a politician in California who would dream of paring back the reward. To the contrary, there would be a bidding war over how much voters' time is worth. You know the answer to that: Voter participation is priceless.
Email Debra J. Saunders at dsaunders@sfchronicle.com

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