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‘It’s Now Illegal to Offer Someone Water in a Voting Line in Georgia’

Claim

In March 2021, it became illegal to give water (or food) to voters waiting in line in Georgia.

Rating

Decontextualized

Reporting

On March 26 2021, Imgur user ZUXUX shared a screenshot of a tweet by journalist Matt Fuller (@MEPFuller), claiming it was “now illegal to offer someone water in a voting line in Georgia”:

The Tweet and Discourse About Georgia Voting Laws

Fuller published the tweet on the morning of March 26 2021, but neither post included any contextual information about its claims; the Imgur iteration was simply titled “.” The most highly-upvoted comment on the Imgur iteration added to the assertion:

Water OR food. They’re both illegal to give out now.

In a second, threaded tweet, Fuller continued:

Discourse on Fuller’s thread included users asking why lines to vote might be sufficiently long to require water breaks, and at least one response lamented the spirit of the purported restriction:

The claims took place against a backdrop of a restrictive new suite of Georgia voting laws. As such, withholding food and water from individuals waiting in line in Georgia was seen as yet another hurdle placed between voters and the voting booth.

In the News in Late March 2021

A soft-paywalled Newsweek fact-check provided a name for the purported new law in Georgia prohibiting anyone from distributing food (or drink) to voters waiting in line — Georgia House Bill 531.

A March 9 2021 PolitiFact fact-check said of the legislation:

Georgia HB 531 has a section that prohibits “any money or gifts, including, but not limited to, food and drink, to an elector.” Such giveaways will be banned within 150 feet of a building where people are voting, within any polling place or within 25 feet of any voter standing in line.

The bill would make a violation a misdemeanor that carries a maximum fine of $1,000 and maximum imprisonment of up to one year in jail. The bill passed the House 97-72 on March 1 and awaits a vote in the Senate.

On March 26 2021, CNN reported:

The new law in Georgia requires more stringent voter verification requirements for absentee ballots, allows state officials to take over election boards and limits ballot drop boxes that make it easier for people to vote. The law allows any Georgian to make unlimited challenges to voter registrations, and, incredibly, makes it a misdemeanor crime for anyone to offer food and water to voters stuck in long lines to cast ballots.

A day earlier, Reuters covered the legislative efforts to restrict voting in Georgia:

The Georgia legislation is one of more than 250 bills Republicans have filed proposing new voting limits across the country since Trump’s loss in November [2020]. It passed both the state House of Representatives and Senate on Thursday afternoon [March 25 2021]; no Democratic lawmakers voted for the measure.

Asked about Republican legislators’ efforts to restrict voting access throughout the United States, Biden on [March 25 2021] called such measures “un-American.”

The Georgia law will make it a misdemeanor crime to give food or drinks to voters waiting in long lines. It also will set up a fraud hotline, forbid local county elections offices from taking breaks while counting ballots and shorten the runoff election cycle from nine weeks to four weeks. It will allow the state election board the power to replace local county election boards and permit challenges to voting eligibility.

Time.com further reported that the bill “criminalizes the practice of ‘line warming,’ in which volunteers hand out food and water to voters standing in long lines, bans the use of provisional ballots for most cases of out-of-precinct voting, shortens runoff elections and limits the use of mobile voting buses, among other rules.” NBCNews.com’s coverage noted people “will be prohibited from taking food and water to voters waiting in line, which has become common in past Georgia elections, in which voters have waited extremely long hours to cast ballots in the past.”

ABC added still more context to the claim:

One provision of the bill would make it a crime for someone who is not an election worker to give food or beverage to any elector waiting in line to vote, a practice known as “line warming,” except for self-service water stations. In the June 2020 primary, voters in Georgia’s largest metro counties — Democratic strongholds with large minority populations — waited in line for up to eight hours.

Previous Context and Georgia Laws Regarding ‘Line Warming’

On February 25 2021, about a month before the claim about Georgia voting lines led to discourse on social media, analysis site FiveThirtyEight.com published a piece headlined, “All The Ways Georgia Could Make It Harder To Vote.”

It opened with context about general commentary about voter suppression before and after the 2020 general election, and included ten of the bill’s provisions. One of the provisions was described as the food and water one, but FiveThirtyEight.com maintained that the activity was already restricted under Georgia laws:

There are currently two big bills under consideration in the Peach State. The first, House Bill 531, introduced in the Georgia state House last Thursday [in February 2021] — just an hour before its hearing was scheduled — has received a lot of attention for the sheer breadth of what it is proposing. It would:

[…]

Clarify that no one can give food or water to people standing in line to vote. (Separately, Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has argued that this is already against the law, and he has announced his intention to start enforcing it more.)

In that sentence, “start enforcing it more” was hyperlinked. That link led to a December 30 2020 WXIA article, “Georgia election officials say they will crack down on giving stuff to people in voting lines,” which began:

ATLANTA — The Georgia Secretary of State’s Office says it will crack down on groups that give stuff to people in voting lines, such as food or bottles of water, calling the practice a “loophole to conduct political activity in violation of state law.”

Georgia Sec. of State Brad Raffensperger issued a press release [in December 2020] saying the practice would come under increased scrutiny, after becoming fairly common in recent voting cycles – usually, coming in the form of donations in response to reports of long voting lines.

The secretary of state referred to the practice as “line warming” – i.e., warming up the people in line to your position as you give them free pizza, for example. Raffensperger said that the practice can be used to “inappropriately influence voters in the crucial final moments before they cast their ballots” and that voting line giveaways “violate the protections Georgia law has placed on campaigning near a polling location or voting line and the prohibitions on providing rewards to voters that were enacted to stop pay-for-vote schemes.”

WXIA linked to an undated press release by Raffensperger, shared to Facebook on December 29 2020 (and presumably issued on that date). According to that press release, distribution of food and drink — described there as a form of bribery — was already illegal under extant Georgia law.

It read, in full:

(ATLANTA) – Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has taken action to crack down on political organizations and advocacy groups that use “line warming” as a loophole to conduct political activity in violation of state law. Secretary Raffensperger sent out an Official Elections Bulletin (OEB) reminding county elections officials to enforce the buffer zone outside of polling locations and near voters in line to cast their ballot in order to ensure voters can cast their ballots without political interference or harassment.

“The right to vote is sacred and fundamental to our democracy, and I am committed to upholding that right for all Georgians,” said Secretary Raffensperger. “Political organizations looking to game the system should be forewarned that we will not tolerate efforts to electioneer near polling sites in violation of the law.”

Political organizations or advocacy groups will use the giveaways or gifts, known as “line warming,” to inappropriately influence voters in the crucial final moments before they cast their ballots. Such efforts violate the protections Georgia law has placed on campaigning near a polling location or voting line and the prohibitions on providing rewards to voters that were enacted to stop pay-for-vote schemes.

To ensure voters are able to cast their ballots without being subject to illegal electioneering, Secretary Raffensperger sent out an Official Election Bulletin (OEB) reminding elections officials that Georgia law establishes a buffer zone around polling locations to “create an atmosphere of calm and non-interference for voters who are contemplating exercising one of their most basic constitutional rights.” Georgia law prohibits individuals from soliciting votes within 150 feet of a polling location or within 25 feet of a voter standing in line to cast their ballot (OCGA § 21-2-414).

The bulletin also reminds elections officials that offering food, drinks, or other items of value to voters waiting in line or those who have already voted is forbidden under Georgia law (OCGA § 21-2-570). Georgia law explicitly states that “Any person who gives or receives, offers to give or receive, or participates in the giving or receiving of money or gifts for the purpose of registering as a voter, voting, or voting for a particular candidate in any primary or election shall be guilty of a felony.”

OCGA § 21-2-570, ‘Line Warming,’ and Georgia Voting News from 2008

Raffensperger’s press release provided a specific citation for the claim that offering food, drinks, or “other items of value” to waiting voters, OCGA § 21-2-570. In that context, “OCGA” referenced the “Official Code of Georgia, Annotated,” which was “the compendium of all laws in the U.S. state of Georgia.”

A search for “O.C.G.A. Section 21-2-570” led to the following decision citing the law in question, dating it back at least as far as 2005 or 2006:

In the interpretation of O.C.G.A. Section 21-2-570, the State Election Board has determined that the prohibition contained therein against the giving or receiving, offering to give or receive, or participating in the giving or receiving of money or gifts for the purpose of registering as a voter or voting does not include the provision of postage to a person solely for the purpose of (1) mailing a voter registration application in order for such person to register to vote or (2) mailing an absentee ballot application or an absentee ballot that was voted and sealed by such person in order for such person to vote.

Ga. Comp. R. & Regs. R. 183-1-19-.01

O.C.G.A. Sec. 21-2-31.

. Original Rule entitled “Giving or Receiving, Offering to Give of Receive, or Participating in the Giving or Receiving of Money or Gifts for Registering as a Voter, Voting, or Voting for a Particular Candidate” adopted. F. Dec. 21, 2005; eff. Jan. 10, 2006.

That search also led to traces of discussions regarding the Georgia law as it existed before 2020 and 2021. In 2008, the Daily Beast’s “Doughnut Giveaway Gone Wrong [Tragic]” reported:

Are Krispy Kreme, Starbucks, and Ben and Jerry’s committing felonies by giving away free treats to voters? According to the state of Georgia, yes. Georgia Code states: “Any person who gives or receives, or offers to give or receive, or participates in the giving or receiving of money or gifts for the purpose of registering as a voter, voting, or voting for a particular candidate in any primary or election shall be guilty of a felony.”

The Daily Beast linked to a since-removed Atlanta Journal-Constitution article from November 2008, which was archived here.  It described how the law affected Election Day promotions in November 2008 — well before the 2020 general election:

Several businesses caught Election ‘08 Fever and offered free items as bonuses to customers who did patriotic duty.

But state officials ruled that giving free items to folks who voted — no matter the altruism involved — is illegal, causing confusion at some metro Atlanta locations and prompting companies to rethink and expand such offers … Businesses like Starbucks, Ben and Jerry’s, Krispy Kreme and even Zoo Atlanta had offered freebies or half-priced items to those sporting “I voted” stickers. But after learning such rewards were deemed illegal, many expanded their election-day largesse to anyone who walked in the door.

“Businesses are free to offer election day sales to all its customers; but special offers just for voters is prohibited,” said Matt Carrothers, spokesman for the Georgia Secretary of State’s office.

The office released a statement quoting Georgia Code: “Any person who gives or receives, or offers to give or receive, or participates in the giving or receiving of money or gifts for the purpose of registering as a voter, voting, or voting for a particular candidate in any primary or election shall be guilty of a felony.”

Zoo Atlanta originally offered a 50 percent discount on admission [on Election Day in 2008] to anyone who voted. On [the morning of Election Day], they expanded the discount to everyone.

The Christian Science Monitor also covered that 2008 controversy over voting freebies in Georgia. AJC‘s removal of the article (which was possibly moved or archived) might have contributed to a lack of familiarity with Georgia’s attitude toward voting freebies. But March 2021 reporting on the “new law” didn’t typically mention Raffensperger’s December 2020 statement reiterating that the practice was already restricted — and we didn’t see anyone referencing 2008 reporting on the issue.

What’s Specifically in Georgia’s House Bill 531

Georgia’s House Bill 531 was available for review here and here, and was summarized as follows:

A BILL to be entitled an Act to amend Chapter 2 of Title 21 of the Official Code of Georgia Annotated, relating to elections and primaries generally, so as to provide that no election superintendents or boards of registrars shall accept private funding; to provide for related matters; to repeal conflicting laws; and for other purposes.

Both pages included “past versions” and a “current version” of Georgia’s HB 531; “electors” in the bill’s text referred to “voters.” A “past version” [PDF] included a Section 21, part (a), which read:

“(a) No person shall solicit votes in any manner or by any means or method, nor shall any person distribute or display any campaign material, nor shall any person give, offer to give, or participate in the giving of any money or gifts, including, but not limited to, food and drink, to an elector, nor shall any person solicit signatures for any petition, nor shall any person, other than election officials discharging their duties, establish or set up any tables or booths on any day in which ballots are being cast[.]

Reporting typically described the infraction of giving water to Georgia voters a “misdemeanor”; “misdemeanor” appeared only once in the previous iteration of HB 531:

Handling a completed absentee ballot application by any person or entity other than as allowed in this subsection shall be a misdemeanor.

When we accessed the “current version” of HB 531 [PDF] on March 26 2021, the document was prefaced:

The Senate Committee on Ethics offered the following substitute to HB 531:

We were unable to locate the “nor shall any person give, offer to give, or participate in the giving of any money or gifts, including, but not limited to, food and drink, to an elector” language anywhere in that version, nor did the word “solicit” appear in it. It was unclear if the bill marked “current version” was complete as signed into law, or whether it simply involved revisions to the original bill.

On the landing page for Georgia HB 531, the first of three “text” (of the bill) links included the “food and drink” provision in Section 15, part (a) [PDF]. It was possible that version was the most recent and current version, and it featured the “solicit votes” aspect.

Regardless of the language in the bill, a crucial element of context was that Georgia’s specific restrictions on providing food and drink to voters on any election day had already been an issue in previous years, and 2008 in particular involved a lot of national reporting on Georgia’s provisions regarding voter freebies.

Summary

Georgia’s House Bill (HB) 531 was introduced in February 2021, passed by both of the state legislature’s chambers and signed into law by Gov. Brian Kemp on March 25 2021. Some versions of the bill certainly included language about whether any person could “give, offer to give, or participate in the giving of any money or gifts, including, but not limited to, food and drink” to a voter at a polling place — i.e., waiting in line to vote. It wasn’t clear if that specific language survived the final iteration of HB 531. However, most reporting failed to mention that Raffensperger issued a December 30 2020 press release targeting the practice of “line warming.” Locating that press release led to multiple 2008 articles about Georgia’s voting law — primarily distribution of food or drink to voters (even in a private establishment far away from polling places). That particular code appeared to be somewhat open to interpretation, but restrictions on giving food and drink to voters far pre-dated the 2020 and 2021 controversies.

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