By Alex Dobuzinskis
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Los Angeles city leaders are considering a lottery system to reward citizens for casting a ballot in local elections, in a measure to combat low voter turnout that officials and outside observers say could be a first for any U.S. municipality.
The Los Angeles Ethics Commission voted 3-0 on Thursday to recommend that members of the City Council move forward with the lottery idea, either by putting it before voters as a local initiative or by adopting it on their own, said commission president Nathan Hochman.
The commission discussed a number of possible ways for the lottery to work, including the use of $100,000 to be split into four prizes of $25,000, or 100 pots of $1,000 for lucky voters who win the drawing, Hochman said.
The unorthodox proposal, which City Council President Herb Wesson has expressed interest in developing, is under discussion as a way to reverse a downward trend in voter participation. Last year, only 23 percent of registered voters in Los Angeles cast a ballot for mayor, compared to 37 percent in 2001.
"To the extent that our democracy is a representative democracy, if roughly 23 percent of the people are determining who the elected leaders are, the fundamental question needs to be asked: are they truly representing all the voters," Hochman said.
Federal law prohibits rewarding voters in any way for casting a ballot, but the Los Angeles lottery system for voting could avoid violating that because no candidates for federal office would appear on the ballot.
California and Alaska are the only states with laws that make it possible to have a voter turnout lottery, but in neither state is it put into practice, city officials said.
Hochman, who compared the proposal to the common practice of paying citizens a nominal amount for jury service, said he is not aware of any U.S. municipality putting into practice a lottery system for voting, and two election experts said they also have not heard of such a system in the United States.
"The natural feeling toward this would be voting is a civic responsibility and voters shouldn't be paid to vote, it should be something you do as an American, it should be part of citizenship," said Matthew Weil, senior policy analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington.
In another means to increase turnout, Australia has for decades fined citizens for not voting. It consistently has over 90 percent of registered voters cast a ballot.
(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Sandra Maler)