By: Chandler Crenshaw
Picture Source Credit: Here
Concern of voter intimidation is not a novelty in politics. When elections may be close, supporters of a proposition may sometimes attempt to influence the election by giving voters an incentive to go to the ballot box for their cause. When these types of allegations occur, they often cause the people to view election results as “fishy”. In South Carolina, a recent school board referendum in Laurens County, situated in the northwest corridor of the state, was fishy. Rather, while the election results were not close, opponents of a failed tax referendum were accused of influencing voters by offering free fish sandwiches to those who voted.
The superintendent of Laurens County put to a vote a referendum to spend $109 million dollars on a new high school to curb overcrowding and provide a “21st century” educational experience in school district 55. On September 5th, 2017, the voters overwhelmingly rejected the referendum in a 1,961 to 6,559 vote. Supporters of the referendum failed to garner 25 percent of the vote.
Nevertheless, cries of voter intimidation have been raised. A local organization known as Kids Come 1st handed out coupons, shown above, that offered a free fish sandwich for those who voted. The ticket read, “I voted, bearer of this ticket, to receive a free fish sandwich.” Some voters complained with the allegation that the coupons were used to bribe voters into supporting the initiative. Furthermore, State Representative Mike Pitts suggests that this violation is one of many attempts to influence the vote. He notes consistent and continued calls coming into his office of voter intimidation as evidence of a larger conspiracy. One observer of the election claims, “the race was nasty from the beginning.”
Kids Come 1st claims that the food was given to any voter, regardless of support or opposition to the referendum, and none of the claims of intimidation to Representative Mike Pitts have been made public. Still, the local solicitor requested a statewide investigation of the matter.
Three weeks after the vote was held, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division announced an ongoing investigation of the referendum, citing that there were “allegations of electoral impropriety” regarding voter intimidation. As of this writing, the government has not released any information regarding the allegations, the investigation, or a potential indictment. Because of lack of available information, the only public question to consider is whether the coupon listed above violates state laws protecting voters from bribery or intimidation.
State law reads “it is unlawful for a person at any election to” offer or propose an “article of value” to “vote for or against any particular candidate or measure.” Violation of the law is a felony with a court discretion fine and the potential of upwards of five years in prison. Evidently, the charges against Kids Come 1st are severe.
While no case law exists regarding the interpretation of the South Carolina law statute, an assistant attorney general of South Carolina in 2006 offered an advisory opinion in a case where a local Chick-Fil-A offered free food for anyone who voted in a local school referendum. The assistant attorney general, citing no case law, gave the opinion that because the offering was not in regard to a “particular” candidate or referendum, the Chick-Fil-A offering was appropriate.
Should the organizer of the free fish sandwich drive be indicted, it is impossible to determine the outcome of the case. The group claims that it offered food for anyone who voted, similar to the state approved tactic conducted by the local Chick-Fil-A in 2006. However, unlike the facts in the 2006 advisory opinion, Kids Come 1st supported the referendum. It would be similar to a pro-Second Amendment activist standing out front of a traditional pro-gun polling precinct offering free food for all who voted in a referendum on gun control: an implicit buying of sorts. Overall, given the lack of case law, it would be hard to predict an outcome, and there appears to be no precedent for legal action in this matter.
Regardless of the intent of Kids Come 1st to influence the election, or even if they did, this situation shows that elections need to continued to be fully monitored by the state government and outside groups to ensure election integrity. While this election was not close, similar tactics could sway future elections should the vote count be much closer. At the end of the day, voters should not be intimidated or incentivized to vote for a candidate based on an offering of value. While handing out something as innocent as a fish sandwich may not seem terrible, voting is a sacred right in this country and it should be protected from bribery schemes, regardless of the actual outcome margins of an election.