OPINION: Gift cards for voters, but not water in line. What’s wrong with this picture?

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

You’ve never seen a system more awash in cash than Georgia politics over the last two years.

There’s the record-setting campaign cash. The federal COVID relief money. The overflowing state budgets.

But the one thing — perhaps the only thing — that can’t be bought with all of the money is a bottle of water, even a small one, on Election Day.

A federal judge will soon decide on the fate of the 2021 state law that makes it a misdemeanor to hand out food and beverages to people waiting in line to vote, lines that can sometimes stretch on for hours on Election Day.

The language of the law specifies that handing out refreshments is verboten within 25 feet of any voter in line or 150 feet of the polling place itself — regardless of whether the water comes with no strings attached.

The Republicans who pushed for the measure called the Democratic anger over it a fake controversy, arguing that nobody’s going to die of thirst waiting to vote, even for several hours at a time.

Poll workers are allowed to set up self-serve water stations for people to get themselves, as long as someone will save their place in line. But with those same poll workers in dangerously short supply just 10 weeks out from election day, it’s hard to imagine they’ll have much free time to man the water station.

Is the price of a person’s vote really so cheap these days that lawmakers believe it can be bought for a bottle of water or a Diet Coke ?

You’d hope they’d have as much faith in their voters as they’ve shown in themselves.

The very same group of legislators who included the water ban for Election Day voters also approved new leadership committees that allow members of the General Assembly to raise unlimited amounts of money during the legislative session, a prohibition that used to assume that money and votes on legislation should be separated in some way.

Lawmakers have also helped Gov. Brian Kemp decide how to spend the massive amount of federal COVID money flooding into the state — nearly $5 billion in all.

That’s translated into announcements by Gov. Brian Kemp for everything from rural broadband funding to a state gas tax suspension to tax refunds to Georgians, which included the governor’s signature on them just ahead of Primary Day.

With coffers still overflowing, Kemp announced earlier this week that more checks, in this case, $350 one-time relief payments, could soon be headed to up to three million Georgias in need.

Is Kemp sending the money straight to Georgians because it’s good politics or good policy? Maybe it’s both. But it’s legal, too.

Also fully allowed this campaign cycle: GOP-aligned super PACs and outside groups giving away vouchers for free gas and groceries to highlight the rising cost of basic necessities.

34N22, the Super PAC supporting Herschel Walker for Senate, has staged events across the state handing out $50 gas cards and grocery vouchers in areas where the GOP Senate hopeful is looking for votes — including rural Georgia and in Black and Latino neighborhoods in and around Atlanta.

Steven Lawson, a spokesman for the group, said the events are legal under state and federal law because the gift cards are unconditional. Shoppers are not required to say they’ll vote for Walker in order to get the free food and fuel. But they will see lots of signs for the former UGA footballer when they register for the giveaway and do their shopping.

Another group, the LIBRE Initiative will be at La Mexicana Supermercado this weekend handing out gift cards in Smyrna. The group is an affiliate of the Koch-founded conservative group, Americans for Prosperity, which advocates low taxes, small government, border security, and now, grocery giveaways.

The cards will be worth $48.27, their estimate of the cost of half a week’s worth of inflation, which they say is caused by “big government policies.”

The Smyrna event is one of dozens the group has planned across the country ahead of the midterm elections and, like 34N22′s vouchers, is allowed by Georgia’s state law because it’s not connected to voting for one candidate over another.

And that’s likely just a drop in the bucket of the campaign money, from donors inside and outside the state, flowing into Georgia elections.

Both Stacey Abrams and U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock have raised record-breaking sums for their elections in November after Georgia ended up as the key battleground state for Democrats in the last election cycle.

Speaking of the last cycle, so much cash flooded into the 2021 U.S. Senate runoffs alone — nearly half-a-billion dollars-- that the campaigns eventually ran out of TV time to buy and ways to spend it.

If lawmakers can trust themselves with unlimited donations and their campaigns to give away gift cards, they should surely be able to trust Georgia voters with a drink in line while they’re waiting to cast their ballots.