The proposal from the Los Angeles Ethics Commission last month that voters in the city’s municipal elections be entered into a lottery for a cash prize has been heaped with criticism.
Washington Post columnist George Will, for one, called the proposal “a perfectly awful idea…so loopy it could only be conceived by governments.” His reasoning for the low Los Angeles voter turnout in the contest for mayor – about 23% in the last election – a non-partisan contest in a one-party city.
Still, there are promotions on Election Day in different communities to encourage voting. Show the proof that you bothered to vote and some local shop owner offers a free donut to go along with that cup of coffee.
In early America, offering free refreshment, especially of the hard liquor variety, was considered part of the voting process.
In fact, it was practiced by non other than the Father of the Country – George Washington.
A US News report told the story of how Washington learned the lesson of offering whiskey to voters.
Washington biographer Dennis Pogue, vice president of preservation at Washington’s home of Mount Vernon, reveals that the father of the nation lost his first campaign in 1755 to the House of Burgesses largely because he didn’t put on an alcohol-laden circus at the polls. That year, Washington got 40 votes. The winner, who plied voters with beer, whiskey, rum punch, and wine, got 271 votes.
A quick learner, Washington won three years later with the help of alcohol. “What do you know, he was successful and got 331 votes,” says Pogue.
Despite this history, there seems something wrong with paying for someone to participate in an election – a duty that we have been told time and again, soldiers and sailors have given their lives to preserve. Offering a financial reward to lure someone who is not interested in public affairs won’t improve civic engagement.
A different Los Angeles Commission may have put forward a better idea for increasing the number of votes in the mayoral contests. Move that election from odd numbered years and coordinate them with the presidential or gubernatorial election, which draws larger turnouts.
At least no one suggested that voters pay for the privilege of voting. Some bureaucrat might think that is a moneymaking idea for the city, but fortunately such schemes were eliminated when the 24th Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibited the poll tax.