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Did you get a freebie this week in honor of Election Day? Hope you enjoyed it – because it could land you in prison. Seriously.

In much the same way that holidays like Presidents’ Day and Columbus Day have become excuses for stores to offer sales and discounts, a growing number of retailers have been offering freebies in honor of Election Day. Among the deals you could score this past Tuesday:

  • From Olive Garden: “Come in with an ‘I Voted’ sticker on Election Day, November 6th and receive a free Dolcini with any adult entree!”
  • From White Castle: “Anyone who shows his or her “I Voted” sticker will receive a FREE small Sweet Potato Waffle Fry with a purchase”
  • From Einstein Brothers: Free bagel and shmear to customers with an “I Voted” sticker

Nice ideas, except for the part about it being a federal crime.

According to Section 597 of Title 18 of United States Code:

“Whoever makes or offers to make an expenditure to any person, either to vote or withhold his vote, or to vote for or against any candidate; and
Whoever solicits, accepts, or receives any such expenditure in consideration of his vote or the withholding of his vote—
Shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than one year, or both; and if the violation was willful, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two years, or both.”

RevTrax_incentive_report_V2

In other words, offering anything of value in exchange for voting is against federal law. Accepting it is, too.

Now, there have been no reports of anyone being thrown into prison for accepting free waffle fries. But election law expert Rick Hasen told the political news site Politico that just because such Election Day deals have become popular, doesn’t mean the law should be changed or ignored. “This is a very common problem, because people believe they are doing their civic duty by encouraging other people to vote.” The problem, he says, is that “these things can be targeted to help voters known to vote for one candidate or another.” If a company can give you a freebie for showing that you voted, what’s to stop them from trying to suppress the vote by offering a freebie if you don’t? Or giving you a freebie if you support a particular candidate? It’s a slippery slope.

Confusingly, though, since this involves a federal statute, Hasen adds that “in many states, in elections when federal candidates are not on the ballot, this activity is perfectly legal.” So freebies are fine in local elections. Still, some communities have their limits. Some political opponents accused a Connecticut state House of Representatives candidate of running afoul of local election laws, by giving voters coupons to the restaurant he owns (read: “Vote For Me, Get a Coupon!”). David Rutigliano went on to win his election this week. In Fresno, California, election officials are trying to determine how stacks of coupons for a city council candidate’s restaurant ended up inside a polling station where he was on the ballot. An election coordinator told the Fresno Bee that “someone had slipped inside the room and put the stack of coupons on the ballot box” while poll workers were busy with voters. Pat Di Cicco, whose family owns Di Cicco’s restaurants, lost the election anyway.

It’s unlikely, to say the least, that Rutigliano and Di Cicco will do any hard time – and neither will anyone who innocently offered or accepted a free bagel or appetizer this Election Day. But some who offered deals this year modified them, just to be safe. California Tortilla altered its offer to read “anyone who either wears their ‘I VOTED’ sticker… or says ‘VOTE’ to the cashier, will get a free taco.” A day before Election Day, Tim Hortons announced it was “expanding its Election Day offer” by giving away coupons for a free donut on its website, instead of only to those who wore an “I Voted” sticker. Politico reports that Starbucks, Ben & Jerry’s and Krispy Kreme similarly modified their Election Day offers in 2008.

So whether or not you got rewarded for it, hopefully you exercised your civic duty this week and voted, while remembering those who have given their lives to afford you the rights and freedoms that allow you to choose your leaders – and then chow down on free donuts, tortillas and waffle fries.

What a country!

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