Buck for your ballot? Los Angeles considers cash prizes for voting

The Los Angeles government might soon offer an unconventional incentive for people to vote: cold hard cash.

At least, that's an option being floated by city officials desperate to boost what one called a "truly depressing" voter turnout in local elections. Last Thursday, the city's Ethics Commission voted to recommend that the Los Angeles City Council explore creating a drawing for a cash prize for anyone who casts a ballot.

"I think that this idea addresses a crisis for which I don't have any other short-term solutions," Ethics Commission President Nathan Hochman told FoxNews.com.

But the plan is running into some serious criticism.

"It's an affront to democracy," California attorney Troy Slaten told Fox News on Wednesday, voicing concern that the plan would attract people who may know nothing about the candidates, looking only for a cash payout.

According to the Los Angeles Times, only 23.3 percent of the city's 1.8 million registered voters cast ballots in the Los Angeles mayoral election in 2013, the lowest turnout in more than 100 years. That election was also the city's costliest since 2001, with more than $55 million spent by the candidates alone.

Ethics commissioners decided to think "outside the box" in considering ways to boost turnout. Commission Vice President Jessica Levinson told FoxNews.com she was skeptical of the lottery idea at first -- she said it's "depressing" that bribing voters is even being considered.

"Is this a perfect solution? Absolutely not," she said. But Levinson added that "when we have at best one in five [voters] showing up, we have to think outside the box."

The commission has asked the Los Angeles City Council's Rules, Elections and Intergovernmental Relations Committee to explore a pilot program for the lottery, which, if approved, could be implemented as early as next year. Hochman said the test program could be paid for through matching funds -- and though he said no amount is set in stone, he floated the possibility of a $100,000 prize.

Los Angeles City Council President Herb Wesson, who chairs the committee and discussed the idea with the commission at the Thursday meeting, said in a statement on Tuesday he wants to hear from the public on the idea. Wesson told MyFoxLA.com he believes the idea will spark a "fascinating discussion."

"For as long as I can remember, there have been concerns about how few people vote in our city elections," Wesson said in a statement provided to FoxNews.com. "Before any decision is made, we want to explore the pros and cons, and hear from as many people and election experts as possible."

Wesson said he plans to hold hearings on the proposal, and invited comments on a Facebook event about voter turnout.

So far, residents don't seem to be swayed. After the page had been up for just a few hours, almost every comment was negative.

"I'd rather have a few informed voters that have studied the issues and candidates than a greater number that run in and punch any hole just to try and win a few dollars," one commenter said.

The proposal is perfectly legal in the state -- if certain guidelines are adhered to. Although federal law forbids offering payment in exchange for voting, California and Alaska have no restriction on it.

This means the lottery could be offered for any election that does not include a federal office on the ballot. Both Hochman and Levinson stressed that entrance in the lottery would be based on simply casting a vote, not on the vote itself.

Hochman said the concept is not that different from jury duty, which offers both an incentive for participating and a punishment for not. He said critics who suggest offering a cash prize somehow debases the Democratic process are missing the big picture.

"If we weren't dealing with a crisis, we wouldn't be having this discussion," he said.