Mayor Slay and Businesses Like Discounts for Voters. Too Bad It's Illegal!


Daily RFT's eyebrows raised when we noticed the following tweet by Mayor Francis Slay from Sunday:

A minor legal problem there: Financially rewarding citizens for voting is illegal under federal election law. Below is the relevant statute, 18 USC § 597 (we've bolded the part that applies):

Whoever makes or offers to make an expenditure to any person, either to vote or withhold his vote, or to vote for or against any candidate; and Whoever solicits, accepts, or receives any such expenditure in consideration of his vote or the withholding of his vote--
Shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than one year, or both; and if the violation was willful, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two years, or both.
Now, does offering a discount for voters qualify as an "expenditure"?

Professor Rick Hasen at the University of California - Irvine, who has published some scholarly research on vote-buying, believes the answer is "yes." He reiterated this position to Politico the other day, which article went on to point out that Starbucks, Krispy Kreme and Ben & Jerry's have all modified promotions for fear of violating this law.

Asked for comment, Mayor Slay's spokeswoman Kara Bowlin e-mailed us to say, "Just because something may be illegal doesn't necessarily mean that the mayor agrees with the law...Or that the law is enforced."

Perhaps not: Many St. Louis establishments, including Hooter's, Gioia's Deli, Southwest Diner, and Pickles Deli, don't seem afraid at all to promote their voter discounts. 

Legal or illegal, the goal is to increase turnout, which has civic value -- perhaps that's why the lefty British paper, The Guardian, has called election-law stickler Dr. Hasen "a crotchety spoilsport who probably just needs.... a big hug."

Support Local Journalism.
Join the Riverfront Times Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the Riverfront Times Club for as little as $5 a month.