As attention turns to the importance of voter turnout in deciding this election, a complaint filed in Colorado last week highlights a perennial in election law: restrictions on paying people to register or vote.  While paying for votes with cash is rare, well-meaning offers of free pizza, coffee, t-shirts or ice cream can face the same restrictions.

Federal and many state laws prohibit paying or offering to pay anyone to register or to vote.  At the federal level, violations can be punished by fines of up to $10,000 and incarceration for up to five years.  The Justice Department is clear that payments under this provision include “anything of monetary value,” including “cash, liquor, lottery chances” and other items of value.  U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Prosecution of Election Offenses, p. 47 (7th Ed.).  The government does not need to prove the party involved sought to influence the election of a particular candidate.  Simply proving that someone offered or provided a material benefit to register or vote is sufficient.  The Justice Department distinguishes between providing a benefit to induce a person to register or to vote and providing a benefit (such as a ride to the polls) to aid a person who has already decided to vote, to effectuate their intent. 

The press reports that the Colorado Republican Committee has complained to the Larimer County Clerk that the Democratic Party offered free pizza and t-shirts proximate to an early voting location on the Colorado State University campus.  While the gifts were not preconditioned on voting, the allegation is that the program was designed to give that impression. 

Even well-meaning corporations, seeking to engender public participation, have bumped into these rules in earlier election cycles, leading to a quick rewriting of the eligibility rules to make sure the giveaways are available to all customers, irrespective of whether they voted or not.

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Photo of Robert Lenhard Robert Lenhard

Robert Lenhard is a member of the firm’s Election & Political Law practice group and advises corporations, trade associations, not-for-profit organizations, and high-net-worth individuals on compliance with federal and state campaign finance, lobbying, and government ethics laws.

Mr. Lenhard routinely assists clients in…

Robert Lenhard is a member of the firm’s Election & Political Law practice group and advises corporations, trade associations, not-for-profit organizations, and high-net-worth individuals on compliance with federal and state campaign finance, lobbying, and government ethics laws.

Mr. Lenhard routinely assists clients in establishing and operating federal and state PACs, compliance programs associated with campaign finance and pay-to-play laws; advises advocacy groups and their donors; conducts compliance trainings and audits of federal and state lobbying and political programs; and counsels clients on compliance with congressional gift and travel rules.

Prior to joining the firm in 2008, Mr. Lenhard served as Chairman of the Federal Election Commission (FEC) in 2007 and Vice Chairman of the agency in 2006, during which time the agency handled over 10 major rulemakings, had among its most productive years in enforcement and audit, and adopted several reforms to the enforcement process.  Mr. Lenhard has also led the Presidential Transition Team that reviewed the FEC for the incoming Obama administration in 2008-2009.