It’s all over the web: freebies for voters! Starbucks, Ben and Jerry’s and Krispy Kreme and other companies announced earlier in the week that they would be offering freebies for voters. This is good, right?
Nope, say some pundits. They claim that offering freebies a violation of federal law, citing section 42 USC 1973i(c).
Really? A violation of federal law? I’m not a constitutional lawyer but I think this is a bit over the top. I believe the law is meant to discourage voters from accepting gifts or money in exchange for “the vote” – to prevent “vote buying” or bribery. I don’t think this rises to that level.
The actual statute reads as follows:
Whoever knowingly or willfully gives false information as to his name, address or period of residence in the voting district for the purpose of establishing his eligibility to register or vote, or conspires with another individual for the purpose of encouraging his false registration to vote or illegal voting, or pays or offers to pay or accepts payment either for registration to vote or for voting shall be fined not more than $10,000 or imprisoned not more than five years, or both: Provided, however, That this provision shall be applicable only to general, special, or primary elections held solely or in part for the purpose of selecting or electing any candidate for the office of President, Vice President, presidential elector, Member of the United States Senate, Member of the United States House of Representatives, Delegate from the District of Columbia, Guam, or the Virgin Islands, or Resident Commissioner of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.
So, no buying votes! No bribing anyone! No paying people to vote! Got it?
Is this what the free coffee and doughnuts are about? I don’t think so. I’ve seen the Starbucks video about the free coffee. And I believe it’s merely a thank you to voters and not an inducement to vote. I think it’s like the free cookies that you get after donating blood – it’s not a payment in exchange for the donation but a thank you for doing so.
From a tax perspective, when you accept an item or money in exchange for goods or services, it’s not a gift, it’s income – even when you break the law. Money or items accepted in exchange for vote bribery or vote buying would be taxable. Why is it income? The simplified version is that you’re being induced into doing something – working, buying, selling, etc. – in exchange for getting something.
Is that the case here? I don’t think there’s an actual inducement. In fact, there is no actual requirement to show proof of voting to get the “freebie.” It’s on the honor system. If the giveaways were meant to produce a specific result, there’s not even any proof that it happened. What kind of “bribe” is that?
But companies are taking no chances in light of the concerns about voter fraud, offering freebies to all who ask and not just those who voted. Starbucks spokeswoman Diana Fullerton has said:
To ensure we are in compliance with election law, we are extending our offer to all customers who request a tall brewed coffee
. So free stuff for everybody!
Even without the offer to extend the freebies to all, it seems to me that this is a case of much ado about nothing. Put another way: do you think that voters are making up their minds to vote (or not) based on the lure of a free cup of coffee or a doughnut? I say no. I enjoyed my free cup of Starbucks coffee today but I would have voted anyway, coffee or no coffee.