Marcell Hilliard (far right) and some Prop 100 workers in Harlem on Wednesday morning (Frank G. Runyeon / Gothamist)
Doing your civic duty could pay today—a $5 Amazon gift card (or free hot pot!) if you show your sticker, or a $10 Uber credit for a first-time voter registration.
An organization called Prop 100 is planning to spend thousands of dollars today on Harlem voters. Several volunteers for the group stood with clipboards at the ready, stopping locals at the entrances to the 116th Street B/C subway stop with the offer of free digital dollars if they could show they had voted.
“The goal is to improve voting,” said Marcell Hilliard, who identified himself as the founder of the for-profit group. He is trying to incentivize people to vote and then return with the “I voted” sticker as a way to improve voter turnout. New voter registrants could get a $10 Uber gift card. All told, he expects to spend “a couple thousand dollars.”
By noon, Hilliard said he had signed up about 150 people with his volunteer crew of 8-10 people.
“It’s a felony,” said John Conklin, spokesman for the state board of elections. A 2009 opinion explained that even a convenience store offering ice cream to children of voters was commiting a crime under state election law.
“I did not know that,” Hilliard said when Gothamist told him what Conklin said. Hilliard said he got some bad legal advice, although he said he never checked on his gift card program with the state board of elections. “I just did a bunch of research,” Hilliard said.
In a follow-up email, Hilliard said he’d be curious to read the full law, before adding: “Thank you for the press.”
State law penalizes anyone who “pays, lends, contributes, or offers…any money or other valuable consideration” to anyone to “induce such voter to vote or refrain from voting at any election…or for having come to the polls…is guilty of a felony.”
It is, however, classified as the “lowest degree” of felony and this crime is “very common,” Conklin said, even though he is “not aware of any prosecutions, ever. There are no case notes in the law book.”
Hilliard said he did know that this activity is a violation of federal election law, but since this is a state and local election today with no federal candidates on the primary ballot, federal law wouldn’t apply in this case—but New York’s law does.
The gift card program is a clear violation of state election law, one expert said.
“There’s a very thin line, if there’s a line at all, between this and vote buying—paying people to vote,” said election lawyer Sarah Steiner. “Paying people to vote is absolutely not right. It’s illegal.”
There’s a long history of candidates and their allies buying children trinkets and toys in exchange for votes, Steiner said, but a gift card is cash.
“I love get-out-the-vote, but this is not good,” Steiner said, explaining further that the problem with such incentives is that “whoever has the most money to pay people to get votes wins. That’s not democratic.”
(Sadly, this also goes for 99 Favor Taste’s free hot pot giveaway.)
As it turns out, the only free (and legal) thing you get for voting today is a sticker.
Let us know if you see any truly outlandish primary day giveaways: firstname.lastname@example.org