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Election law nixes Highland Grill owner’s ‘I voted’ meal deal

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.

Offer not good in Minnesota
Offer not good in Minnesota

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.

(You can find a pretty expansive list of 2008 giveaways here from big names including Krispy Kreme, Ben & Jerry’s and Starbucks. California Tortilla is tempting the fates in 2010.) 

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.”

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Gerald Abrahamson on 10/29/2010 - 10:04 am.

    IMO, neither law is applicable. The federal law (as quoted) says “to make an expenditure”. The restaurant is NOT making an expenditure–the patron is (the expenditure is buying the meal). The restaurant is allowing a discount to the patron ONLY if that person has a specific sticker. Thus, a person could vote and NOT get the discount (because they chose to NOT go to that particular place to eat). Or the patron COULD choose to vote (or NOT vote)–but then NOT have the sticker (for some reason–if they voted) and thus pay full price regardless.

  2. Submitted by David Brauer on 10/29/2010 - 10:24 am.

    Gerald –

    Should also say Bert Black references 42USC1973i:

    http://law.justia.com/us/codes/title42/42usc1973i.html

    Don’t know if that changes things.

  3. Submitted by B Maginnis on 10/29/2010 - 10:31 am.

    Harry Reid was literally passing out free food to voters in Nevada.

    Their “law” must be different, huh?

    This is a ridiculous interpretation by a stste government that is increasingly anti-business.

  4. Submitted by Steve Sundberg on 10/29/2010 - 11:45 am.

    @Gerald: Technically, the restaurant would be making an expenditure — by discounting the price of its menu items, or by reducing the mark-up it would normally use to arrive at the prices shown on the restaurant’s menu.

    The Federal law is less forgiving than the state law, as it does not make any exceptions with regard to any considerations.

  5. Submitted by Matthew Steele on 10/29/2010 - 03:01 pm.

    Lock those restaurateurs up! And cook those prisoners some tasty turkey burgers with sweet potato fries and aoli.

  6. Submitted by Barry Johnson on 11/03/2010 - 07:29 pm.

    As much as we can all laugh about this case, I really don’t mind a zero-tolerance mindset on this kind of thing, because it really gets messy thinking about where to draw the line.

    What makes this case look so unimportant is that we all know the Blue Plate restaurants are “everyman” sort of places spread across an urban and suburban mix of neighborhoods.

    But, if this is OK, what’s the bright line rule that says a Dinkytown bar can’t offer 10-cent beers to everyone with an ‘I Voted’ sticker, something that would probably significantly benefit Democratic turnout. Or if an exclusively suburban or upscale traditional restaurant offered a discount to voters, might that produce a Republican bias?

    I’d rather just have zero tolerance than have public officials or civil servants making ad hoc decisions – then you’d never feel you had a level playing field.

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