Can paying people to vote increase voter turnout? L.A.’s looking into it and the answer is yes.

August 19

Mike Murphy exits his polling place at the Whitney Senior Center after voting in the primary election Tuesday, Aug. 12, 2014, St. Cloud, Minn. (AP Photo/St. Cloud Times, Jason Wachter)

Just 23.3 percent of Los Angeles voters cast ballots in last year’s mayoral election, the lowest figures in 100 years. Turnout was “embarrassingly down,” Herb Wesson, the city’s council president said, and he’s looking at how to change that.

“Someone brought up what would it be like if we had some sort of incentive program,” Wesson said. “It’s just an idea.”

The Los Angeles Ethics Commission voted Thursday for Wesson to look into various ways to increase turnout, including cash incentives like a lottery.

The idea is just in the “incubation process,” Wesson said, with nothing approaching even an actual proposal, but there’s data to suggest paying people to vote increases turnout.

Can paying people to vote increase voter turnout?

A study conducted in 2010 in Lancaster, Calif., in northern Los Angeles County, by Fordham University professor Costas Panagopoulos found nominal incentives like a few bucks don’t do much to increase turnout, but a few more dollars is enough of an incentive to convince a larger percentage of people to vote.

According to the study, published in 2013 in the Journal of Politics, 14.9 percent of a control group voted in Lancaster’s 2010 municipal election. That number only increased to 15 percent for those who received $2 by mail, but went up to 17.6 percent for $10 and 19.2 percent for $25.

Panagopoulos noted there are “likely limitations” to how effective incentives like this could be, and at some point, offering more money wouldn’t bring in more voters. A 2006 Arizona proposal that would have given voters a slim chance — one-in-about-two-million — in winning $1 million for voting wouldn’t have been that effective, he predicted. That proposal was rejected by voters.

“[T]he lottery would have been functionally equivalent to giving compliant citizens about 50 cents each in exchange for voting,” he wrote. “This study suggests such a reform would likely have failed to boost turnout rates appreciably.”

Rewarding voters with anything more than an “I Voted” sticker can prove controversial (the California Democratic Party was criticized in 1999 for offering free chicken dinners to voters in a state legislature primary election, despite it being technically legal), but in a 1994 study, it was argued paying people to vote is no different than compensating people for jury duty.

Christian Grose, an associate professor of political science at USC, said he thinks cash incentives could “potentially make people more likely to vote,” but argued it would be wise for the city to test it out on a small scale before any decisions would be made.

“There is just something about L.A. city where voter turnout isn’t very high,” he Grose. “L.A.’s a real large city, and in larger cities, people aren’t as connected to their elected officials … Part of it is the structure of the city. It’s sprawling.”

A very mobile population also contributes to the low turnout, Grose said, as does holding elections in odd years. “It’s been a concern for a long time.”

Wesson, the Los Angeles Council President, said his research into increasing turnout won’t stop at cash incentives.

“I think this conversation will take us in many directions, and that’s one of them,” he said. “Maybe we should vote for more than a day, maybe we should vote on our phones … There may even be an idea that we haven’t talked about.”

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