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Sorry, Rewarding Voters With Free Food Is Technically Illegal

How restaurants get away with doing it anyway

American Expats Gather To Watch Coverage Of The U.S. Presidential Elections Bethany Clarke/Getty Images

After performing their civic duty on Election Day, millions of Americans will proudly wear their resulting “I Voted” sticker as a badge of honor — and scores of restaurants will seize the opportunity to get customers in the door by rewarding voters with discounts or free food, from Shake Shack fries to night-long happy hours.

But despite the proliferation of such promos, they’re actually against the law: The Federal Election Commission bans any kind of rewards — no matter how nonpartisan — for voting when federal candidates are on the ballot. (And restaurants offering rewards in exchange for voting for a particular candidate, such as a pho restaurant in Las Vegas that promised Trump voters a discount in 2016, are definitely thumbing their nose at the law.)

Why are giveaways illegal?

"This is a very common problem, because people believe they are doing their civic duty by encouraging other people to vote. And in many states, in elections when federal candidates are not on the ballot, this activity is perfectly legal," University of California Irvine law professor Rick Hasen previously told Politico.

Rewarding people for voting has been illegal since 1948, and it’s not hard to see why: Offering cash or goods in exchange for ballots would be a pretty clear violation of our free democracy.

Has anyone gotten caught?

Famously liberal ice cream company Ben & Jerry’s found this out the hard way in 2008 when it tried to give away free scoops to voters; after being notified that it was running aground of the law, the company extended the giveaway to everyone. (Starbucks also launched — and quickly abandoned — a promo for free coffee for voters that same year.)

How do so many restaurants skirt the law?

Sometimes, it’s simply all in the wording: Some restaurants promote free food for anyone “wearing a sticker” — not just an “I Voted” sticker.

But plenty of other restaurants with less shrewd legal departments still continue to promote straightforward giveaways for people who vote each year and get away with it. Smaller, local restaurants giving away, say, free chips and salsa to voters simply aren’t likely to catch the attention of the Justice Department, and the feds have even declined to go after major corporations — letting Starbucks off with a warning, for instance — likely deeming such pursuits not worth the time or effort.

Okay, so where can I get a deal for today’s midterms?

Shake Shack: Free fries with any purchase by using the code “ivoted” on the Shack App or by showing your “I Voted” sticker during ordering.

Potbelly Sandwich Shop: Free cookie with purchase; just ask during checkout. There’s “no requirement to vote” to receive the deal, but per Potbelly’s Twitter account, “you should.”

Corner Bakery Cafe: Free coffee (any size, cold brew included) by showing off an “I voted” sticker.

Baked by Melissa: Free cupcake to those who show an “I Voted” sticker at a retail store; online orders get 10% off.

Birch Coffee: The NYC coffee chain will offer free drip coffee to anyone wearing an “I Voted” sticker.

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