Ballot box buffoonery

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LAO file photo

A friend of mine in grade school was a good student who regularly brought home report cards bearing As and Bs. After each term, she'd proudly announce how much she'd made for her efforts -- her parents rewarded her with a dollar for every A and 50 cents for every B.

Had my family followed that practice, I too would have fattened my pink patent leather wallet. I was a good student too ... if you don't count arithmetic. I told my parents about my friend's scholastic windfall, and asked, "Why don't I get paid for getting As?"

"Because," my father replied, "you're expected to do well in school. You don't get special rewards for what you're expected to do."

Even to a kid, that made sense.

To this adult, what doesn't make sense is the L.A. Ethics Commission's recommendation to the City Council on how to encourage more people to vote: Pay them. Or, more accurately, woo them into the voting booth with the promise of a payout via lottery whose winners would be composed solely of people who vote.

The desperation of these leaders does make sense in a city where this week's election of a new L.A. Unified board member drew a paltry 8% of the electorate, and where the most recent mayoral election pulled only 23% out of the eligible pool of franchise holders.

After the Constitutional Convention concluded in 1787, Benjamin Franklin was famously quoted in response to the question of what will the United States be, a republic or a monarchy? "A republic, if you can keep it."

Poor voter turnout is not the way you keep a republic, at least not a healthy one. But financial seduction is a sordid, shallow solution to the problem. It's treating the symptom, not the disease, and the fact that L.A. civic leadership even entertains the idea of rewarding people for something that they are expected to do makes you wonder if they all cut 9th-grade civics class, where I learned why casting a vote is both a precious gift and the obligation of a free person.

I too deplore the fact that people are too ignorant/lazy/busy/isolated/distracted to fulfill their responsibility to vote. I too deplore a quality of ballot choices often so poor and campaigns so disgusting that people refuse to support electoral junk. But this behavior offends me less than role models who think bribery is a reasonable way to turn slackers into suffrage.

It's insulting that they spend more time figuring the metrics of a successful bribe than they do figuring out why people don't vote. "Maybe it's $25,000 maybe it's $50,000, ...That's where the pilot program comes in -- to figure out what ... number and amount of prizes would actually get people to the voting box," as Commission President Nathan Hochman said in the L.A. Times.

It's illegal under state law to pay or give gifts to people in exchange for a given vote. Can't you smell the stench arising from a voter lottery that entices people into the booth regardless of whether they even punch the chad?

It's illegal to accept pay for voting, but these deep thinkers believe that because only some voters who play for the possibility of lottery pay actually would profit, the law does not apply. One Ethics commissioner told The Times that because the law is a federal statute, it's irrelevant in a purely local election. And she's a lawyer. Shouldn't she be expected to honor the spirit of the law?

Do you want people serving on the city's Ethics Commission and its City Council whose lust for voter turnout overrides their sense of right and wrong?

I don't know how to boost the flagging voter numbers, but I do know this isn't it. And that the people who live here, despite their serious shortcomings in citizenship, deserve a higher quality of thinking.


More by Ellen Alperstein:
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