Election Day Giveaways Raise Ethical Questions

Posted November 4, 2008 at 6:09pm

For voters, today is not only the day to have a say in the direction of the country — it’s also a day to get free coffee, doughnuts, cookies and even burgers and tacos.

But concerns over whether such giveaways are legal under election law have led many businesses to offer up free goodies to anybody who asks — including businesses on Capitol Hill.

Election law forbids any person or business from giving “something of value” in exchange for voting, for fear that such giveaways could prompt people to vote in a certain direction, according to election law expert Ken Gross. And what “value” is, exactly, is pretty loosely defined.

“It can be a can of Coke or a sandwich or something like that,” said Gross, an attorney at the firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom.

The Pennsylvania Avenue burger joint Good Stuff Eatery and newly opened New Jersey Avenue hotspot Art and Soul are among the Capitol Hill businesses offering giveaways for voters, joining national chains such as Starbucks, Krispy Kreme and Ben & Jerry’s.

At Good Stuff — which is covered in spirited red, white and blue décor — customers with an “I Voted” sticker can nab a free cookie or brownie, according to chef Spike Mendelson. But anybody else who asks for the offering can get it, too, he said.

“We’re just giving away … complementary cookies to the United States today,” he joked.

Art and Soul, the swanky new bar and restaurant in the Liaison Capitol Hill Hotel is offering a free appetizer for voters who buy two cocktails. Meanwhile, Capitol Hill-area workers were storming into their nearby Starbucks to nab a free cup of coffee. California Tortilla, Krispy Kreme and Dunkin’ Donuts also are offering giveaways.

Still, it’s not likely that anybody is going to go after Starbucks over that tall cup of joe.

“I think it was an innocent mistake,” Gross said. “It’s hard to imagine a prosecutor losing sleep over something like this, even after a tall cup of coffee.”