There are good reasons to encourage voter turnout: A society shows its civic connectedness and engagement by heading to the polls. But turnout doesn’t mean nearly as much if voters are merely chasing a pot of money. Still, the Los Angeles Ethics Commission voted last week to recommend to the city council that cash prizes should be offered to boost lagging turnout in municipal elections, since only about a quarter of the city’s eligible voters show up. (In Boston’s off-year elections, when the mayor’s not on the ballot, the turnout is even lower.) For LA, the commission suggests some sort of lottery, with winners chosen from among those who’ve filled out a ballot.
It’s creative, but dumb. Even if Los Angelenos flocked to the polls for the free lottery ticket, there’s no reason to believe they’d actually pay attention to who’s running. The task of making voters care about local elections requires charismatic candidates, easy access to voter information, a commitment from news media to cover the races — in other words, all the hallmarks of real civic vitality, not a turnout-boosting gimmick.