Getting Free Stuff For Voting Is Against The Law

As Election Day approaches, I’m noticing that several businesses here in the D.C. area, including a national chair or two, are offering bonuses of one kind or another for people who voted, usually saying that you’re entitled to the free item if you’re wearing one of those “I Voted” stickers. The first company I can remember doing this was Starbucks, which offered a free regular drink to everyone who had voted several elections ago. As it turns out, all those freebies are against the law:

Business owners beware: Offering a discount or a freebie to voters Tuesday is illegal. But despite a clear federal ban on such activities, they’ve only proliferated in recent years.

A Washington D.C. yoga studio is offering 10 percent off for showing an “I Voted” sticker. An oyster bar is offering free shellfish and a drink. Coffee chain Tim Horton’s, which is based in Canada but has stores in several U.S. states, promised a free donut with the purchase of a coffee. Einstein Bagels promised voters a free bagel. A California hot dog restaurant is offering a free frankfurter.

These are just some of the dozens — if not hundreds — of businesses nationwide who are trying to capitalize on the civic spirit of election day, and do their part to encourage voting.

But election law experts say the discounts and giveaways are plainly illegal — no matter how innocent or nonpartisan the intentions.

“In elections in which federal candidates are on the ballot, no one can offer any kind of benefit or reward for voting. The simple way to deal with this is to open up the event to all comers — voters and nonvoters alike,” law professor and election law expert Rick Hasen told POLITICO in 2010.

“This is a very common problem, because people believe they are doing their civic duty by encouraging other people to vote. And in many states, in elections when federal candidates are not on the ballot, this activity is perfectly legal,” Hasen, who teaches law at University of California Irvine, said.

In a follow-up e-mail on Monday, Hasen said he didn’t think the law should be changed just because these specials have proliferated in recent years.

“These things can be targeted to help voters known to vote for one candidate or another,” Hasen said, raising the specter of corruption.

Most businesses appear to be responding to this news by modifying their promotion to make it open to all patrons regardless of whether they had voted or not. Of course, it’s unlikely that anyone would ever be prosecuted for giving out free hot dogs to people who had already voted. However, as Hasen notes, the law is the law and it would not be easy to carve out an exception for these types of promotions. Moreover, since the promotions are intended to encourage people to vote, it strikes me that limiting only to people with a sticker on their lapel doesn’t make much since.

FILED UNDER: 2012 Election, Law and the Courts, US Politics, , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. mantis says:

    Getting Free Stuff For Voting Is Against The Law

    No it isn’t, but giving that stuff away is.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    Yeah, times have really changed. One of my dad’s first jobs, when he was little more than a toddler, was distributing half-pints of whiskey to voters at the polling place. Those were the days!

  3. Tsar Nicholas says:

    I enjoyed that article. I also learned something new. I didn’t know U.C. Irvine had a law school. Seriously. Turns out they opened one in 2009. Bully for them. UCI is a great place. Gorgeous weather. The heart of Orange County, which is teeming with Republicans. If I had a kid who wanted to make the mistake of going to law school I’d sure as hell send her there.

    In any event, what I find ironic about that article and this whole topic, however, is that for scores upon scores of years Democrats have been engaging in systemtic, organized election fraud, and yet even today it’s like pulling teeth to get anybody to care about it. From Tammany Hall, to the Barbary Coast of San Francisco, to “Landslide” Lyndon Johnson, to Chicago ’60, to Landrieu-Jenkins, to the “Torricelli switch,” to Gregoire-Rossi, to Franken-Coleman, and many other places and faces in between, it’s as if it’s simply OK to have Democrat-sponsored election fraud in this country. It’s not. But yet still it goes on. It’ll happen tomorrow. And then we’ll all turn the other cheek.

    Sad but true.

  4. @Dave Schuler:

    A tradition that has sadly gone by the wayside

  5. David says:

    @Doug Mataconis: I can get through the voting without a drink, but really could use a shot every tenth commercial or so. Never thought I would miss ED commercials every 5 minutes on TV.

  6. PJ says:

    @Tsar Nicholas:

    I enjoyed that article. I also learned something new. I didn’t know U.C. Irvine had a law school. Seriously.

    Without OTB you wouldn’t know a lot of things….

  7. PJ says:

    So, it’s ok to drive someone to a polling location, but not back home?

  8. michael reynolds says:

    Hmmm. If what we’re saying here is that Starbucks needs to be arrested, I’m in. (I’m a Peet’s guy.)

    I did not know this was illegal. But I did know that whiskey is delicious and goes well with major decision-making.

  9. Gromitt Gunn says:

    So is the act of giving someone an “I Voted” sticker against the law? Presumably someone had to pay for them in order for them to be dispersed at the polling location.

  10. Franklin says:

    @Dave Schuler: Well, I’ll drink to that! It’s an idea whose time should come again.

  11. JKB says:

    The give away is clearly racist. If you can’t discriminate against felons in hiring due to the disproportionate impact on minorities surely this is discriminatory since felons could never qualify for the voting benefit. Well, without committing a felony. And let’s not forget those illegal aliens. Heck, even the legal aliens. So DC abound with racist businesses.

  12. James Joyner says:

    Amusingly, I always turn down the “I Voted” stickers on the grounds that I’m not in 3rd grade and don’t need a sticker to reward me for doing what I’m supposed to do. I’m nice about it; I just don’t want the damn thing. And the poll workers always seem confounded.

  13. bill says:

    if this was really true -literally, there would be no democrats left!

  14. Alison says:

    What does it mean to “make since”?

  15. Tipperdon says:

    I just want to know what a “national chair” is. Opening sentence of article, third phrase. Does anybody proof their writing anymore?

  16. MstrB says:

    Thanks for the post, I turned this knowledge into a free cup of coffee this morning.

  17. Megan says:

    @James Joyner:

    I am an adult and I enjoy getting a free sticker. Oddly enough, I always feel like a greedy little kid when I get my sticker. I mean, I don’t really need it.

  18. trevor says:

    @Tsar Nicholas: Explain this fraud, with specific examples and site some sources please.

  19. Alison says:

    I hope you don’t live in New Jersey, Doug M. Nobody likes a narc. Just because you’re a stick in the mud, you have to go and swag-block everyone else?