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.