Is it illegal to hand out water or food outside your polling place?
(NEXSTAR) – A federal judge recently declined to block a controversial law enacted in Georgia following the 2020 presidential election — one that effectively prohibits the distribution of food or water to voters waiting to cast their ballots at polling places throughout the state.
Georgia’s Election Integrity Act of 2021, signed into law by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) in March 2021, made headlines across the country when it was first proposed. In addition to restrictions on handing out snacks or water within 100 feet of polling places — or within 25 feet of anyone waiting in line to vote — the law reduces the amount of time to request absentee ballots, and requires more specific identification voter identification than in previous elections, among other changes.
Defenders of the Election Integrity Act, like Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, say the law makes the state’s elections more secure and even expands voting access by granting one extra day of early voting. But opponents, like President Biden, claim it was designed to suppress voting, particularly among Black voters.
“This is Jim Crow in the 21st century,” Biden said in a statement issued by the White House in March 2021. “It must end.”
Biden later singled out the restriction on food and water, calling it an “atrocity,” as reported by The Hill.
“If you want any indication that it has nothing to do with fairness, nothing to do with decency, they passed a law saying you can’t provide water to people standing in line while they’re waiting to vote,” Biden said. “You don’t need anything else to know that this is nothing but punitive, designed to keep people from voting.”
All states, meanwhile, have at least some restrictions on electioneering activities near polling places, though few specify that civic organizations or voting advocacy groups be prohibited from providing food or water, like Georgia.
Montana’s law stipulates that voters may not be provided with “alcohol, tobacco, food, drink, or anything of value” in a polling place (or within 100 feet of one), but only if the people providing the aforementioned items are candidates, family members of candidates, or affiliated with any candidate’s campaign. In other words, a nonpartisan organization can provide water or food to voters waiting in line, provided they adhere to the state’s other electioneering guidelines.
New York, too, bans “meat, drink, tobacco, refreshment or provision” unless it’s valued at less than $1 and handed out by individuals who don’t identify themselves to voters. But $1 could easily cover the cost of a water, or a piece of fruit, or some other such food or drink.
Few other states even mention consumables in their statutory provisions, according to the National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL), a non-governmental bipartisan organization comprised of legislators from across the country.
Among others that appear to come somewhat close, Minnesota has a specific ban on bringing or serving “intoxicating liquors” or malt beverages at or within polling places, the NCSL pointed out. And New Hampshire prohibits directly or indirectly providing “intoxicating liquor” to voters with the intention of swaying votes, according to its official election procedures.
A representative for the NCSL declined to comment on whether Georgia’s law was the most restrictive in the nation as it pertains to food and water. Georgia, however, is the only state with a law prohibiting anyone from handing out water to voters waiting in line, said the representative, who identified herself as an elections project manager who updates the NCSL’s state-by-state electioneering resource.
As restrictive as it may be in terms of food and drink, it’s worth noting that Georgia’s Election Integrity Act of 2021 does not prohibit a polling place’s workers from making water available to voters. According to the law, every polling location in Georgia is allowed to provide “self-service water from an unattended receptacle to an elector waiting in line to vote,” if they choose to do so.
Several challenges to Georgia’s law have already been filed, though it has yet to be blocked. Just this August, U.S. District Judge J.P. Boulee denied a motion for an injunction, ruling that there wasn’t enough evidence to show that restrictions on water or food within 150 feet of Georgia’s polling places was unconstitutional. But Boulee, in his ruling, appeared to indicate a problem with the law’s restrictions on handing out water within 25 feet of any voter waiting in line, as there is no limit to how long the line may be. The plaintiffs, he said, were “substantially likely to succeed” in showing that particular restriction was unconstitutional.
In any case, the motion was denied, in part because the November midterm elections were too close to the date of the ruling.