This summer, it was $100,000 waiters. Now, with Election Day nearly here, restaurants are again causing controversy.
Blue Plate Restaurant Company — proprietors of the Highland Grill, Groveland Tap, Edina Grill and Longfellow Grill — simply wanted to spice up a slow November Tuesday. So at 3:28 a.m. yesterday morning, owner Stephanie Shimp shot off an email to her 70,000-person list. The deal: 25 percent off if you wear your “I voted” sticker.
As it turns out, the state is something of a stickler about sticker promotions.
By 11 a.m., Shimp had received an email from Secretary of State legal advisor Bert Black. “He was very easy, very good to deal with,” she recalls. “He said, ‘I love your restaurants, but you can’t do this. You guys crossed the line. And by the way, do you deliver?'”
The line Shimp crossed was offering anything of value in return for a vote.
Minnesota statute 211B.13 makes it a felony to give away food or liquor “to induce a voter to refrain from voting, or to vote in a particular way, at an election.” (Emphasis mine.)
For her part, Shimp says she wanted people to vote, and swears she doesn’t care how they voted. “We just want people who exercise the right to vote to get tasty food at a discount,” she says with a chuckle.
However, Black says the real problem is federal law 18USC597. It criminalizes action by anyone who “makes or offers to make an expenditure to any person, either to vote or withhold his vote” and the recipient of said offer. If it’s unintentional, the participants could face a fine and a year’s imprisonment; intentional violations double the jail term.
Black insists the Secretary of State’s office was not enforcing the law, merely advising Shimp’s company of the legal risks. (I wouldn’t want to be the U.S. Attorney who brought this case.)
How was the office alerted? “One of our employees is on her email list,” he says with a chuckle.
Black says this is the first case this year, but running afoul of such laws isn’t unprecedented. As the Washington Post noted in 2008, Secretary of State offices nationwide sent out warnings that deals limited to voters constitutes an illegal inducement.
The workaround: offer everyone who stops in the goodies. “One thing we can do is offer a discount to everyone who says, ‘Happy Election Day,'” Shimp muses.
She plans to email a new offer today, promising to take a humorous approach. By the way, Shimp says waiters at Blue Plate’s restaurants don’t make $100,000: “$50,000 maybe, but not $100,000.”