News & Politics

That Free Food You Got for Voting Is Illegal

But there's an easy fix.

Photograph via iStock.

Sporting an “I Voted” sticker after casting your ballot today? Go into a Krispy Kreme location today wearing an sticker and you’ll get a free doughnut. Sit down for lunch at Bayou Bakery and get 15 percent off your check. Eat dinner at Compass Rose and get a complimentary khachpuri for the table.

There are few things more American than encouraging people to vote, and it’s especially encouraging to see local and national businesses urging their customers to participate in democracy. But sometimes—as corporate interests sometimes do in politics—their gestures go so far as to potentially violate federal election laws by offering Election Day specials on the condition that people provide proof of voting in the form of an “I Voted” sticker that some people receive upon leaving their polling places.

And as in past elections, a bunch of DC restaurants and big chains are unlawfully offering free food and drinks to people who show up with stickers. No matter how highly one values the act of voting, compensating people for casting a ballot or receiving any kind of reward for voting is a violation of US Code 18, Section 597.

Krispy Kreme, Bayou Bakery, and Compass Rose are just a few examples of many restaurants and shops that offered incentives to voters today without checking if it was legal. While these kinds of offers are on a level not nearly as nefarious as, say, an actual scheme to buy votes with cash, they are outlawed because the rewards have cash value.

Rick Hasen, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, has crusaded against these kinds of deals since at least 2008, when he caught Ben & Jerry’s planning to give out free scoops to anyone who showed up with an “I Voted” sticker in that year’s presidential election. He continued issuing his warnings in 2012, and tells Washingtonian in an email that nothing in the law has changed in the four years since.

But Hasen has also written that there’s a simple fix to these illegal deals: make them available to everyone, regardless of whether or not they’ve got a sticker from their polling place. It’s fair to people who might not have received a sticker, people who may have voted early and already used their “I Voted Early” sticker, and people who didn’t vote at all. In 2008, the Ben & Jerry’s special simply became a free-scoop day for all walk-ins.

Compass Rose will follow a similar course tonight, Rose Previte, the 14th St., Northwest, spot’s owner says after being informed about the illegality of giving khachpuri only to people sporting a sticker.

“Tonight when staff come in I was pretty much going to tell everybody we’re not going to argue about this,” Previte says. “If someone comes in and says they voted or they didn’t or they heard there’s free khachpuri, they’re gonna get it for free.”

Other establishments set up Election Day specials apparently aware of the law. California Tortilla is offering free chips and queso to any customers who walk in and say “I’m with queso” or “Make queso great again;” and Shake Shack is offering free servings of custard to anyone who mentions the giveaway at the register.

There are still some scofflaws who could get back on the right side of the law by opening their specials to everyone, like Duke’s Grocery in Dupont Circle and Duke’s Counter in Woodley Park, which are reportedly offering $1 drink specials only to customers with “I Voted” or “I Voted Early Stickers”; or Sugar Shack Donuts locations in Arlington and Alexandria, which will give a doughnut to anyone with a sticker.

So it’s not too late to correct these violations. Election law can be obscure. Previte, who holds a master’s in public policy, was unaware her initial offer was technically taboo. “I’m a little mad at myself for not knowing this one,” she says.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.