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States commonly ban bribing voters or limit electioneering within a certain distance of polling places. But laws that expressly ban giving away food or water to voters waiting in lines are rare. Voters who bring their own food and drinks remain free to consume them.
Georgia lawmakers passed a law this year that bans food and water giveaways to voters near polling sites, although poll workers are allowed to set up self-serve water stations.
New York and Montana have laws about food and water giveaways, but they are less restrictive than Georgia’s.
Vice President Kamala Harris said that state lawmakers have proposed hundreds of laws that will suppress or make it difficult for people to vote, and that one way state lawmakers have sought to curtail access to the ballot is to cut off food or water to voters in line.
"They are punishing people for standing in line to vote," Harris told Soledad O’Brien during an interview on BET. "They are saying ‘Well, if you are going to be standing in that line for all those hours, you can’t have any water or any food.’"
We found that Harris’s comments have some basis in fact, but she also exaggerates how restrictive some of the laws are.
Nationwide, we found laws that expressly ban distributing food and water to voters are scarce. And of course, voters are always free to bring their own food or water.
Giveaways of food and water to voters waiting in line are fairly common where allowed, though. Voting rights advocates have long organized efforts to give away bottles of water or food near polling sites where residents wait in line for hours to vote, especially in Black-majority neighborhoods. Activists call this "line warming" and say that it helps voters withstand the wait to cast a ballot, sometimes in hot weather or during lunch or dinner time.
But states also commonly ban bribing voters or ban electioneering within a certain distance of polling places, to prevent undue influence on voters. States routinely set up perimeters at polling sites to allow voters to stand in line to vote without campaign workers handing them literature on behalf of candidates.
The most restrictive law we could find about food and water for voters is in Georgia. The state passed a law in 2021 that says, in part, no one shall give "any money or gifts, including, but not limited to, food and drink" within 25 feet of voters standing in line.
Violations of this law are a misdemeanor and punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.
The bill also states that poll workers can make available "self-service water from an unattended receptacle to an elector waiting in line to vote." But nothing in the law requires poll workers to make water easily available to voters in line.
A previous state law already made it a felony to give gifts "for the purpose of registering as a voter, voting, or voting for a particular candidate." That provision doesn’t mention food or water specifically, but in 2020 Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger interpreted it to include food or water.
Laws in Montana, New York and Florida are not as stringent as Georgia
Montana’s 2015 law, signed by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, bans candidates and individuals working on their behalf from distributing food or drinks to voters at or near a polling place. A Montana court used an earlier statute to remove a sheriff from office following the 1938 election because he handed out "large quantities of beer, by the bottle and by the keg."
The White House pointed to a proposed bill in Florida that initially banned giving "any item" to voters. But the law that ultimately passed instead expands the pre-existing solicitation ban to include zones around dropboxes and "engaging in any activity with the intent to influence or effect of influencing a voter." While that law doesn’t mention food or water, critics of the law fear it could be interpreted that way.
We found that New York’s law bans giving "meat, drink, tobacco, refreshment or provision" to voters unless it has a value of less than $1 and is given without any identification of the person or group supplying it. The law has been on the books for decades, with the $1 cap being added in 1992. New York’s law would allow someone to buy bottles of water or cheap snacks in bulk and hand them out anonymously to voters. Georgia’s law makes no such exceptions.
It is possible for a court to interpret an electioneering ban to include food handouts to voters at the polls, but it doesn’t happen often. Snopes found that the Supreme Court of Kentucky in 1997 ruled that an alderman running for election wrongly handed out food at voting precincts that was intended for poll workers, although the alderman acknowledged that anyone at the sites could take the food. The court ruled that the candidate handing out free boxes of chicken while speaking to voters amounted to electioneering near the building.
Harris said new or proposed state laws on voting mean "if you are going to be standing in that line for hours, you can’t have any water or any food."
This is an exaggeration. People voting in line can still eat or drink. In some places, they may have to bring their own food and water.
What Harris is talking about are laws aimed at stopping organized food and water giveaways. Georgia passed a law this year that bans handing out food and water to voters in line. Montana passed a law in 2015 that bans candidates or people on their behalf from distributing food and water to voters in line. A law that passed in Florida this year bans engaging in any activity to influence a voter, but it doesn’t specifically mention handing out food or water.
It’s important to note that these laws are rare. And, they don’t literally ban eating or drinking in line; rather, they ban organized giveaways that violate anti-electioneering rules spelled out in state law.
We rate this statement Mostly False.
PolitiFact researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this fact-check.
BET, Vice President Kamala Harris Answers Questions About COVID-19 Vaccine & More, July 9, 2021
Montana Code, Electioneering -- Soliciting Information From Electors
Florida Senate, HB 7041: Elections, 2021
Washington Post, Expand access? A historic restriction? What the Georgia voting law really does. April 6, 2021
NBC News, Florida strips language from bill effectively banning voters from being given food and water in line, April 8, 2021
Supreme Court of Kentucky, Gerry Marie ELLIS, Appellant/Movant, v. Reginald K. MEEKS, Appellee/Respondent, Sept. 4, 1997
Supreme Court of Montana, Kommers vs Palagi, 1940
Snopes, Which States Ban Giving Food and Water to Voters at Polling Places? April 6, 2021
PolitiFact, Georgia bill would ban giving food, water to voters in line, March 9, 20201
PolitiFact, The facts about Georgia’s ban on food, water giveaways to voters, March 29, 2021
PolitiFact, What’s in Georgia’s new voting law that lost it the All-Star Game, April 7, 2021
PolitiFact, Ask PolitiFact: Are New York’s voter laws more restrictive than Georgia’s? April 8, 2021
Email interview, Andrew Bates, White House spokesperson, July 13, 2021
Email interview, Jaime MacNaughton, Chief Legal for the Office of the Commissioner of Political Practices in Montana, July 15, 2021
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