THE BUZZ 3: Free Beer Folly

By on September 28, 2016

Candidates warned that celebrating the democratic process cannot include doling out free booze or food.

Delicious beer: apparently a ‘valuable’ commodity in the Cowboy State. (Photo: Sargent Schutt)

Delicious beer: apparently a ‘valuable’ commodity in the Cowboy State. (Photo: Sargent Schutt)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – What exactly constitutes vote buying? Apparently offering free drinks and food to voters is one way.

A recent press release from the Teton County clerk’s office was “a friendly reminder to local businesses and candidates to structure their election-minded promotions in a way that doesn’t break the rules.” Nowhere in the press release does it state that it is a de facto crime to offer giveaways, such as free food or beer, however. County clerk Sherry Daigle cited Wyoming Statute 22-26-109, which reads that offering bribes is willfully promising money or valuables “to induce a person to vote or refrain from voting for or against a candidate.”

At issue was a September 24 event held by mayoral candidate Pete Muldoon offering free beers at Thai Me Up for anyone who showed up wearing an “I voted” sticker. Muldoon received Daigle’s press release on September 23, and subsequently changed the language of his Facebook event: “We are celebrating with free food and beer from Thai Me Up and Melvin Brewing. Stop by and celebrate your civic duty with us!” read the ad.

“We offered food and drinks to whoever showed up,” Muldoon explained, “regardless of whether or not they had an ‘I voted’ sticker.”

But Muldoon was not the only candidate unaware of how these arcane statutes might affect seemingly innocent voter soirees. In July, Mayor Sara Flitner held a similar event at eLeaven restaurant. In an email she stated eLeaven would offer a free drink or dessert to anyone wearing an “I voted” sticker. However, Flitner says a friend alerted her at the last minute to the possible problem and she decided against offering the beer and dessert at the event.

According to county attorney Keith Gingery, alcoholic drinks, such as beer, are considered a valuable. While this may not surprise brewing companies that hold their brews in high esteem, others may not find it so obvious that a beer is a thing of value.

Gingery says the issue is pretty clear when a candidate specifically offers a free beer or other valuable to a voter for voting specifically for her or him. However, things become murkier when it’s a get-out-the-vote party.

“If a candidate is holding a party and if you show up with an ‘I voted’ sticker, and you get a free beer, there is a lack of the explicit statement but the candidate is still implicitly stating that he will give you something for your vote for him,” Gingery said. “This [hypothetical incident] is much grayer because you may not have voted for him and he doesn’t know how you voted.”

Gingery noted that bribery prosecutions are particularly fact-specific. “Clerk Daigle was trying to be very careful to not say that anyone had violated the law, but that there was the potential, and she just wanted everyone to be careful with how they were wording their ads.”

Businesses too must tread carefully, but under federal, not state, law. “If a restaurant is giving away some food item or beer simply because you voted, it does probably violate the federal election law that does not allow for offers for voting regardless of who they voted for,” Gingery said.

Rewarding people for turning out to vote has been in violation of federal law since 1948. But according to Slate.com, voter-bribery cases have been pursued more vigorously since the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That bill was intended to protect racial minorities who face discrimination at the polls.

Small town local politicians are not alone in stumbling over outdated election offense laws. In fact big name businesses have tripped over such laws in recent years. In 2008, Starbucks and Krispy Kreme got their wrists slapped for offering Election Day free coffee and doughnuts, respectively, to voters. Instead they had to change their offer to include any customer, regardless of voting.

As of yet, sales in the microbrewery, fancy coffee chains, and sugar-laden fat product industries have yet to see a major boost from their new importance in American politics. Meanwhile, there is no evidence that any Jackson or Teton County candidates have broken bribery laws while campaigning this election season. PJH

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About Meg Daly

Meg Daly is a freelance writer and arts instigator. She grew up in Jackson in the 1970s and 80s, when there were fewer fences, but less culture. Follow Meg on Twitter @MegDaly1

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