Krispy Kreme will give you a free donut. Firehouse Subs will give you a free drink. And various local businesses will give you all kinds of freebies, just for showing up tomorrow with a sticker that says you voted.

And then the feds will come and lock you up.

Hope all that free food was worth it!

As those “I Voted” stickers have become commonplace across the country in recent years, more businesses have decided to get in on the action. Election Day giveaways first boomed in popularity in 2008, with major chains like Starbucks, Ben & Jerry’s and Chick-fil-A offering freebies to anyone who showed up on Election Day wearing a sticker.

The problem is, it’s against the law – not only to offer such a deal, but to accept it, too. Turns out that getting your free donut or drink could land you, and the well-meaning merchant, in the slammer for up to five years.

At issue are a couple of federal statutes aimed at preventing vote-buying in federal elections:

“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.”
(18 USC 597: Expenditures to influence voting)

“Whoever… 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”
(52 USC 10307: Prohibited acts)

When Starbucks and Ben & Jerry’s realized this in 2008, they changed their Election Day promotions. No longer were customers required to show an “I Voted” sticker – they merely needed to ask for the freebie. “Originally, we planned to give free scoops away just to those who voted. We found out afterwards that certain laws may not allow it,” a Ben & Jerry’s spokesperson said at the time.


So why are national chains like Krispy Kreme and Firehouse Subs making similar offers, eight years later? Have the feds decided to lighten up, as Election Day offers have become increasingly popular?

“Nothing has changed,” election law expert Rick Hasen of the University of California at Irvine told Coupons in the News. “Freebies are definitely illegal as payment for turnout in federal elections.”

Hasen has written about vote buying for years, and claims credit for bringing the issue to Starbucks and Ben & Jerry’s attention back in 2008. Krispy Kreme also ran a free donut offer that year, and also changed its promotion to allow anyone to participate.

But it seems to have forgotten that lesson. This year’s Krispy Kreme promotion again requires participants to present an “I Voted” sticker or, if they don’t have a sticker, to say that they voted.

Neither Krispy Kreme nor Firehouse Subs responded to requests for comment about their promotions. But, in response to a question on its Facebook page about whether its Election Day offer was legal, Krispy Kreme tried to explain: “Our offer does not encourage people to vote one way or another and is made available to anyone who mentions it at a participating location.”

Unfortunately, that doesn’t make it legal. “Paying for turnout – even in a civic minded gesture such as this one – is illegal in elections in which federal candidates are on the ballot,” Hasen wrote on his website.

The saving grace is that most retailers are unlikely to turn you away if you don’t have a sticker, or if you simply ask for the offer without going through the motions of saying that you voted. So that’s a strategy you might want to follow, if you don’t want to run afoul of the law.

Still, most legal experts agree that federal prosecutors have more important things to do than drag you off in handcuffs for accepting free food on Election Day. Even if they did try to make a case of it, one could attempt to make the argument that accepting a freebie for saying that you voted, doesn’t quite rise to the level of vote-buying. It seems quite unlikely that anyone disinclined to vote would do so just to receive a free donut. So such offers are more of a reward after the fact for something you would have done anyway, than an incentive to act in a way that you otherwise wouldn’t.

But do you want to try to explain that to a judge? The law is the law, and if authorities look the other way when it comes to well-meaning, nonpartisan Election Day giveaways, it could put us on a slippery slope. What if a local retailer known for backing a particular candidate – whose clientele supports its politics – makes such an offer, and ends up boosting the vote for its chosen candidate? What if a retailer located in a certain state, or neighborhood, makes such an offer, affecting the turnout in a way that could change the overall vote results?

It’s a lot to think about, just for a donut or a free drink. And this Election Day, more than ever, we all have enough to worry about as it is.

Image source: Firehouse Subs

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