by Dr. Andy Jackson
Director of the Civitas Center for Public Integrity, John Locke Foundation
While visiting New Bern recently, I heard that a group was offering food and drinks at an early voting site nearby. The person believed the group was specifically targeting voters for those gifts.
This was something worth investigating. Under North Carolina law (§ 163-275.):
It shall be unlawful: (2)For any person to give or promise or request or accept at any time, before or after any such primary or election, any money, property or other thing of value whatsoever in return for the vote of any elector.
In other words, it is illegal to give anything of value to anyone based on who they voted for or are intending to vote for. This is not limited to buying votes for a particular candidate, providing inducements for voting is illegal, no matter the party or candidate. It is also illegal to give anything of value to someone for them not to vote.
As the North Carolina State Board of Elections Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell noted in a memo to county elections boards, groups can give away food and drink as long as it is unrelated to voting:
Individuals or groups may not give away free items such as food, drink, or other things of value if the giveaway is conditioned on the person having voted. It is a federal and state crime to make or offer to make any expenditure to any person based on whether they choose to vote or not to vote, or to vote for or against any candidate. It is permissible for individuals or groups to giveaway items to all persons they encounter, regardless of whether they have voted or plan to vote.
With that in mind, I went to the Craven County Administration Building at 406 Craven Street in New Bern. The building is home to the Craven County Board of Elections, one of the county’s four early voting sites.
There was a short line of voters heading into the building. Nobody was offering them anything other than information about candidates. There were also several canopies set up in front of the building: one for each of the major parties, one for a local candidate, and one for Unlock Our Vote, a group that works towards having voting rights extended to convicted felons who are serving their sentences on probation or parole. That was the group reportedly giving out snacks and water.
I saw no evidence that the folks in the group were approaching voters with offers of food and drink. I then went to their canopy and asked if I could have some chips and water. They opened a tote without asking if I intended to vote or had voted, and I picked out a bag of potato chips. One of the volunteers then handed me a bottle of water.
You could say that the Unlock Our Votes folks were engaging in sophistry by giving away stuff to “anyone” while they happened to be sitting near an early voting site; who else would be in a position to receive those items other than potential voters? That sophistry would have been unconvincing if the group members were actively handing out the food and drink to people in line to vote or encouraging voters to come to their canopy to collect those items, but they were doing neither when I was there.
Based on what I saw, the Unlock Our Vote folks in New Bern were not violating the state law prohibiting the offering of anything of value in exchange for voting.