Giving free food to voters allowed in practice despite legal gray area

Elaine Scarlett of Lawrenceville takes a free slice of pizza from a Domino's Pizza employee as she waits in line to cast her ballot on the second day of early voting at the Gwinnett County Voter Registration and Elections Building.  (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Elaine Scarlett of Lawrenceville takes a free slice of pizza from a Domino's Pizza employee as she waits in line to cast her ballot on the second day of early voting at the Gwinnett County Voter Registration and Elections Building. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

In this high-stakes election season, the long-standing practice of volunteers handing out snacks, drinks and even pizza to voters waiting in long lines has come under increased scrutiny.

The debate over giving food to voters was elevated when an out-of-state donor attempted to order pizzas for voters waiting in line in Gwinnett County.

Gwinnett’s Board of Elections refused the offer, maintaining that giving voters anything of value, pizza included, was a violation of federal law. Organizations that encourage voting and participate in such “line warming” activities have disputed Gwinnett’s response to the attempted donation.

In legal terms, the practice falls in the cracks. In practical terms, volunteers are rarely, if ever, sent away from polling places by election authorities.

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At the crux of the issue are both federal and state laws meant to prevent special-interest groups from “rewarding” voters for casting their ballots. The law is meant to prevent groups from buying votes through money or other means. However, according to attorney Dara Lindenbaum, counsel for the nonprofit voting rights group Fair Fight Action, there’s a loophole: As long as anyone, such as poll workers or passers-by, can partake in the offerings, the food and drink are clearly not a reward to voters.

Volunteers also must obey all laws against campaigning near polling places and voting lines. As long as they are not campaigning and offering their snacks to all comers, Lindenbaum said in a memo, the practice should be legal.

In the real world, election officials tolerate volunteers giving out food and drinks at polling places as long as there is no partisan influence. Many voters will see volunteers “warming” voting lines during the early voting period and on Election Day.

Volunteers, however, do occasionally face confrontation. Because the practice of providing food to voters exists in a legal gray area, some people may take offense.

In Dougherty County, armed residents confronted volunteers for the nonprofit group Black Voters Matter who were giving out snacks and sample ballots to voters waiting in line Oct. 16. Volunteers called police, who separated the armed demonstrators from the volunteers. The incident was reported to the ProPublica Electionland tip line and confirmed by volunteers with the Black Voters Matter organization.

For both voters and volunteers, the best thing to do is avoid all mention of politics. Volunteers should be ready to hand out food to anyone who asks and prepared for questions from voters or authorities. Poll workers are ultimately in charge of each voting precinct, so any issues should be reported to them right away. The poll manager should be able to answer questions or provide any resources necessary to both voters and volunteers.

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