Are Election Day Freebies A Violation of Federal Law?

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.

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9 thoughts on “Are Election Day Freebies A Violation of Federal Law?

  1. KPE-

    Of course it is nonsense. A typically “PC” overreaction.

    To be honest I doubt Starbucks cares one ounce if people vote or not. While in the store to get a free cup of coffee a person might also pick up, and pay for, a cup for a friend. Or buy a muffin or cookie, at the Starbucks inflated price, to go with the free coffee , etc. They are using the gimmick to bring people, who might not otherwise want to pay a ridiculous price for a cup of coffee, into their store.

    While I would gladly accept a free cup of coffee from any store, for any reason, I certainly would not pay Starbucks’ price for a cup of coffee, except when forced to at the airport.


  2. What kind of grump would think these promotions violate federal law!?! For that, they get a full-price cup of coffee without a heat guard!

  3. We heard a little of that scuttlebut at my ward. Just to be sure that they get credit for voting, we made sure that everyone who voted got a sticker. So, if you voted in our precinct, maybe you got something for free. Doesn’t mean that you had to vote Republican or Democrat, just that you voted. Where’s the harm (that is, unless it’s very large amounts of alcohol before you staggered into the polls — didn’t smell any of that today)?

  4. Is a free cup of burnt coffee really a bribe? Is it payment? Or is it just a free cup a normally overpriced coffee? Does Starbucks really hold that much clout with voters? Are there caffeine addicts who voted simply to score that free cup and calm the withdrawal symptoms? Will tea drinkers sue for discrimination? (The answer – no. They gave me free tea just as willingly)

    The law was clearly intended to avoid people bribing others to vote for a specific candidate. Frankly, we should have 100-percent voter turnout, so enticing someone with free coffee to care enough to vote for ANYONE THEY WANT should be encouraged.

  5. It’s ridiculous that people turn so-called issues like this into something so political (puns aside). At best, Starbucks (or Krispy Kreme or whomever) is making a goodwill gesture to encourage people to celebrate their country and its unique democratic structure. At worst, Starbucks et al are trying to generate income through a goodwill gesture to encourage people to celebrate their country and its unique democratic structure. Neither of which is unreasonable or harmful and neither of which violates the intent and spirit of the above law. I agree with everyone above–they’re not buying votes, they’re celebrating America.

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