Georgia lawmakers under investigation for handing out snacks to voters

Angel Poventud, who voted early, volunteers his time to hand out pizza and snacks to people waiting in line. The wait time to vote at the Pittman Park precinct in Atlanta was reported to be three hours. Pizza and snacks were donated for the people waiting in line. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

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Angel Poventud, who voted early, volunteers his time to hand out pizza and snacks to people waiting in line. The wait time to vote at the Pittman Park precinct in Atlanta was reported to be three hours. Pizza and snacks were donated for the people waiting in line. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Even before Georgia explicitly made it illegal to hand out pizza and chips to voters waiting in line, two state legislators were accused of breaking the law for doing so.

State Reps. Roger Bruce and Matthew Wilson, both Democrats, are under investigation, facing allegations they gave gifts to voters in the form of snacks. The State Election Board recently voted to refer their cases to the attorney general’s office, and they’re facing potential fines.

Giving away food and water to weary voters became commonplace in precincts with hours-long lines during the last few elections, when volunteers and voting organizations encouraged people to endure delays and ensure their ballots counted.

Georgia’s new voting law banned distributing refreshments to waiting voters, a measure supported by Republican lawmakers who said voting lines should be protected from outside influence. The law allows poll workers to set up self-service water receptacles.

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Under previous state law, giving money or gifts to voters wasn’t permitted, but it didn’t spell out whether that prohibition applied to food and water.

Bruce, a Democrat from Atlanta, gave out bags of potato chips in October during early voting in his district while wearing a shirt that said “Roger Bruce State Representative.”

“If they felt like they needed to pass a law, that meant it wasn’t clear I was doing anything wrong in the first place,” Bruce said in an interview. “People were standing in line for hours. I saw the people there and I felt bad for them.”

He said he didn’t ask for anyone’s vote and had no opponent in the race.

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Wilson, a Democrat from Brookhaven who is running for state insurance commissioner, bought four boxes of pizza and handed out slices at his home precinct at Cross Keys High School on Election Day in November 2018. Wilson told investigators he didn’t identify himself as a candidate and got permission from the poll manager before handing out food.

“The only real events that led to this year’s election rewrites are the Republican losses at the ballot box,” Wilson said. “In response, Republicans brought this legislation with the sole desire to make it harder for folks to vote in historically Democratic areas.”

Besides banning distribution of food and drink, the voting law also limits absentee ballot drop boxes, requires different forms of ID for absentee voting and allows state takeovers of underperforming county election offices, among many other changes.

Matt Mashburn, a member of the State Election Board and a longtime Republican Party poll watcher, said the practice of giving out food and drinks “got out of hand” in recent years, with taco bars, buffets and snack stands set up at polling places.

Georgia’s history of voter intimidation justifies laws that prevent interference with voters waiting in line, Mashburn said. Decades ago, he said, sheriffs and deputies would threaten voters at polling places.

“There’s not supposed to be any interaction between virtually anyone and the voters and poll workers so they would be free from intimidation,” Mashburn said. “The voter protection bubble is a serious thing with a very important history, especially in Georgia.”

Under Georgia’s voting law, Senate Bill 202, no one can give out food and drinks to a voter who is in line, within 25 feet of a line or within 150 feet of the outer edge of a polling place. Food and water could be distributed outside those boundaries.

Handing out refreshments is punishable as a misdemeanor, with maximum penalties of a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. But these kinds of cases are usually handled outside of court by the State Election Board, which generally issues public reprimands or levies fines between $150 and $2,000.

Bruce and Wilson also face allegations that their distribution of food violated laws prohibiting candidates from campaigning at polling places, charges that they deny.