Starbucks: Free Coffee for Voters?

Most of you will have heard by now that Starbucks stores in the U.S. are were offering a free coffee to anyone who announced that they’ve voted. (Here’s the Starbucks ad on YouTube.) Some of you will also have heard that this is not exactly legal: U.S. election laws forbid offering incentives for people to vote.

Consensus seems to be that while this is technically illegal, it’s unlikely to result in charges being laid. But still, is it OK for a company to do this? On one hand — and this is certainly how Starbucks is putting it — encouraging people to vote seems unobjectionably patriotic. On the other hand, adhering to election laws is also a pretty good thing. (Starbucks has now retracted their offer, or rather they’ve expanded it to include voters & non-voters alike.)

On first blush, it’s hard to see how offering free coffee to anyone who votes could count as interfering with the election. After all, they weren’t offering free coffee to people who vote any particular way. That would be fine, in theory, if supporters of different parties were evenly distributed among patrons of different businesses. But they’re not. Businesses like Starbucks (and many others) tend to cater to particular demographics, and those demographic fault lines are politically important. For example, check out this factoid from NPR:

Of people who get their coffee at Starbucks, 52 percent favor Obama while 39 percent prefer McCain. Of people who frequent Wal-Mart, 58 percent favor McCain while 33 percent prefer Obama.

So, a company that knows its customers (and Starbucks surely does!) can have a partisan effect, even if it offers freebies to “all” voters.

Other companies offering similar promotions:

Another Update:
From Tim Storey’s blog: And the winner is…Starbucks!

I just voted at the venerable Wheat Ridge Presbyterian Church. After feeding my ballot into the tabulation machine, the wonderful pollworker handed me an “I voted” sticker and told me to be certain to go to Starbucks to get my free cup of coffee.

(Thanks Mindy!)

5 comments so far

  1. Anonymous on

    So interesting. Some other companies also “promote” vote without providing direct incentives. Pitchfork’ website is closed today, with a beautiful “Vote Today, Pitchfork Tomorrow” in the middle of the page, usually filled with new updates and reviews. This is, of course, “nice”. But once again, it can have a partisan effect. (Pitchfork’ readership is probably divided in something like 98Obama/2McCain). In fact, their “Vote Today, Pitchfork Tomorrow” is basically a way to say “Hey you young hipsters you would probably vote Democrats, stop looking at our snobbish music reviews and vote!!”py

  2. ladyjoe on

    I thought Starbucks’ offering free coffee to voters was an awesome idea. Most people talked about packing a lunch when going to vote because of the tendency of staying long hours on line.So if Starbucks decided to replenish voters’ energy lost, that’s great. But some people claimed they went for free coffee even though they didn’t vote. So who lost?

  3. Chris MacDonald on

    Ladyjoe:Fair question. Essentially what Starbucks had <>planned<> to do — rewarding people for voting — would have been classified as “vote buying.”Vote buying — including simply paying someone to vote who would not otherwise have voted — is one of the central categories of electoral fraud. The most obvious worry is that vote buying will have an illegitimate influence on the outcome of the election. Even if that’s unlikely, there’s still the principled objection that people’s votes (including their decision to vote at all) ought to be determined by actual reasons, not by money or free coffee.Chris.

  4. Joseph Onesta on

    We see nothing wrong with encouraging those who have the right to vote to exercise that right. I’ve seen nothing from Starbucks as, Ben & Jerry’s or Krispy Kreme that smacks of trying to sway the vote of those who claim the freebees.

  5. Chris MacDonald on

    Joseph:Thanks for your comment. Two points in response:1) As I pointed out in my original blog entry, a company doesn’t have to <>try<> to sway voters in order for their offer to have the <>effect<> of swaying the vote. If a company with a mostly-Democratic clientele offers incentives simply to vote, and a company with a mostly-Republican clientele fails to, the net effect will be more votes for the Democratic candidate.2) The cup of coffee seems innocent, just like the corner diner giving discounts to cops seems innocent. But both are a challenge to the integrity of an important public institution, and both can easily function as the thin edge of the wedge, leading to more serious problems. In both cases, we are simply better off saying “No.”Chris.

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