Election 2017

Business giveaways to voters are illegal — but not today

So go get your free cup of coffee and discounted movie tickets

Brittany McLaughlin volunteered with the Election Protection Coalition in Nov. 2016.

Brittany McLaughlin volunteered with the Election Protection Coalition in Nov. 2016.

Jasmine Goldband / The Incline
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Today is Election Day. Candidates know it. Voters know it (hopefully). And businesses know it, too, as evidenced by the slew of Election Day-related discounts and offers being extended to voters both here in Pittsburgh and nationwide.

It seems harmless enough: an attempt to encourage or reward the exercise of one’s civic duty and maybe reach new customers in the process. But giveaways to voters are actually a violation of a federal law when federal candidates are on the ballot. In those cases, federal law bars anyone from offering a benefit or reward for voting, as Politico reports.

“Federal law prohibits giving or receiving something of value in exchange for voting in a federal election,” Jonathan Brater, counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program at New York University School of Law, told the NY Daily News last November.

But that’s not the case today. This is a municipal election, and there are no federal candidates on the ballot.

More than that, Pennsylvania has no such prohibition on election-related giveaways, meaning there’s nothing standing between you and that free Election Day scone today.

Here’s an except from the PA Election Code, sent via email by a spokesperson with the Pennsylvania Department of State:

Any person who shall, directly or indirectly, give or promise or offer to give any gift or reward in money, goods or other valuable thing to any person, with intent to induce him to vote or refrain from voting for any particular candidate or candidates or for or against any constitutional amendment or other question at any primary or election; or who shall, directly or indirectly, procure for or offer or promise to procure for such person any such gift or reward with the intent aforesaid; or, who with the intent to influence or intimidate such person to give his vote or to refrain from giving his vote for any particular candidate or candidates or for or against any constitutional amendment or other question at any primary or election, shall give to or obtain for or assist in obtaining for or offer or promise to give to or obtain for or assist in obtaining for such person any office, place, appointment or employment, public or private, or threaten such person with dismissal or discharge from any office, place, appointment or employment, public or private, then held by him, shall be guilty of a felony of the third degree, and, upon conviction thereof, shall be sentenced to pay a fine not exceeding fifteen thousand ($15,000) dollars, or to undergo an imprisonment of not more than seven (7) years, or both, in the discretion of the court.

If your eyes glazed over about 10 words into that, you’re not alone. Here’s the gist: Pennsylvania law targets coercive giveaways or those meant to influence your vote — not those meant to simply encourage you to cast one.

But the more restrictive federal rule for those races involving federal candidates remains in effect for most elections, often to the surprise of those businesses — everything from coffee shops to donut shops to gyms and porn sites — that have run afoul of it in the past. And by past, we mean as recently as last November.

But this year is different. So go crazy, Pittsburgh. Here are a few places you can start your celebration. Happy Election Day!

Want some more? Explore other Election 2017 stories.