A long line of cars formed at a Chevron gas station south of downtown Atlanta on Saturday as word spread that a political action committee was handing out $25 vouchers. Now the pro-Herschel Walker group’s giveaway is fueling a different sort of backlash.
The initiative by 34N22 was designed to highlight rising gas prices, a top issue for Republicans hoping to capitalize on inflation and economic uncertainty to unseat U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock.
Motorists in the heavily Democratic area were handed vouchers — a combined $4,000 worth — along with flyers promoting Walker, a former football player who is now the Republican nominee. Outside the gas station, volunteers held signs declaring “Warnock isn’t working.”
Democrats and voting rights groups quickly criticized the stunt, questioning how offering fuel vouchers to support a political candidate could be allowed in a state that bans groups from distributing refreshments to waiting voters in line to cast ballots.
“This is illegal,” declared LaTosha Brown, a cofounder of Black Voters Matter.
“Meanwhile, also in Georgia, giving out water to those waiting to cast a ballot is considered illegal voter influence,” said state Sen. Michelle Au, a Johns Creek Democrat.
The PAC referred to a memo from attorney Kory Langhofer that asserted the program was “entirely lawful and permissible” because the vouchers were given without any condition, such as a requirement to vote for Walker or appear in an advertisement.
“Warnock’s campaign is upset about 34N22′s community outreach program, not because of any earnest legal concerns, but because they don’t want the public to know Warnock has contributed to record gas prices and the pain Georgians are feeling at the pump,” wrote Langhofer, whose experience includes serving as a lawyer for Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign.
Aides to Warnock, who backed a federal gas tax suspension earlier this year to lower prices, didn’t comment on the initiative.
But several influential Democrats argued that the PAC’s move could have violated Georgia law that states: “Any person who gives or receives, offers to give or receive, or participates in the giving or receiving of money or gifts for the purpose of registering as a voter, voting, or voting for a particular candidate in any primary or election shall be guilty of a felony.”
Among them was state Rep. Bee Nguyen, a Democratic candidate for secretary of state who recalled how the office of Georgia’s top election official sent an investigator to a metro Atlanta precinct in 2020 “with firearm on hip and demanded all food and water to be removed.”
“Giving away gas vouchers and Herschel Walker flyers at the same time isn’t legal. Are they gonna do something about it?”
Footage of the event showed Angela Stanton-King, who has run unsuccessfully for a safely Democrat U.S. House seat as a Republican, telling waiting motorists that ”Warnock ain’t working” as she handed them vouchers.
”So I said, ‘Herschel, you’ve got to show up and show out for the community if you want their vote, right?’ So that’s why we’re here.“
Several legal experts told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution the program appears permissible so long as the voucher was given to anyone regardless of voter registration status or as a basis to pledge their vote for a candidate.
One attorney said it was no different than a campaign handing out merchandise, so long as the option is afforded to all. Another indicated the greater problem is whether it crosses ethical boundaries.
“The real question is here is whether handing out cash on behalf of a candidate or a candidates’ supporters is ethical,” said Anthony Kreis, a Georgia State University law professor.
“Winks and nudges with cash in hand may not technically be vote buying, but it’s a sign of a deeply unhealthy democracy that’s more fit for the early 19th century than 2022.”
Rick Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California-Irvine School of Law, said the initiative also doesn’t appear to break federal rules but that it underscores a greater flaw in the state’s elections code.
“If gas giveaways as part of campaigns are legal under Georgia law but it is a crime to give voters water standing in line to vote, you might ask Georgia legislators what it is they hope to accomplish with the water ban,” he said.
Stephen Lawson, the PAC’s spokesman, delighted in outrage that brought more attention to 34N22′s effort to oust Warnock in a race that could determine control of the U.S. Senate.
“Maybe they should focus on lowering gas prices instead of chasing conspiracy theories?”