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.