Last fall, Nate Mook was in Atlanta’s suburbs during early voting for the general election. The chief executive for World Central Kitchen was spearheading the group’s Chefs for the Polls initiative, which passed out free food and water to voters standing in line. In Marietta, Mook said, he chatted with Georgia residents who had been waiting six hours, and sometimes longer, to cast their ballots.
“People told us, right off the bat, like ‘This is amazing, I can stay in line now. I don’t need to go get food or feed my kids who are with me,’ ” Mook told The Washington Post. “That was something we actually heard quite frequently.”
Those days could be numbered for WCK and other humanitarian groups. Among the provisions in Georgia’s new elections law is one that prohibits “any person” — not just politicians, campaign volunteers or political nonprofits that might try to influence votes — from passing out food or drink to residents awaiting their turn to vote. The law states that those who want to provide refreshments on election days cannot be within 150 feet of a polling place or within 25 feet “of any voter standing in line.”
According to PolitiFact, violations of the law “are punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.” Not long after Republican Gov. Brian Kemp signed the elections bill in March, President Biden issued a statement, saying that the new law “makes it a crime to provide water to voters while they wait in line — lines Republican officials themselves have created by reducing the number of polling sites across the state, disproportionately in Black neighborhoods.”
Organizations that work to feed and hydrate voters are trying to figure out how the law will affect their operations in a traditionally red state that voted for a Democratic president for the first time since 1992 and sent two Democrats to the U.S. Senate.
But voting watchdog groups have already formed opinions about how the food-and-drink restrictions will play out among the Georgia electorate in future elections: They say the move will hurt low-income voters who stand in line with their children as the dinner hour comes and, sometimes, goes. They say the rules will also negatively impact residents in the Atlanta metro area, where voter rolls have swelled (4 out of 5 new voters were non-White, according to an NPR report) even if polling places have not.
Other changes in Georgia’s elections law, such as voter ID requirements and a shorter time window to request mail ballots, could lengthen lines at polling places, says Bob Brandon, president of Fair Elections Center, a nonpartisan voting rights and election reform organization based in Washington. This could be particularly true in Black neighborhoods, where residents tend to vote in person. (The office of the Georgia secretary of state said wait times were, on average, 3 minutes on Election Day in November and 2 minutes during the January runoff.)
“The lines will be longer than they would have been if they didn’t make these changes,” said Brandon. “We just don’t know how long that means. … But we know, from all over the country, there are always places where there are long lines, and in those circumstances, people tend to not be willing to wait.”
Anecdotally, activists say groups such as World Central Kitchen, Pizza to the Polls and other nonprofits help mitigate some of the issues that cause voters to flee a line on a hot Georgia day: They provide water to the elderly. They feed kids who might otherwise get cranky. They even create a sense of community, says Mook with World Central Kitchen. Residents might ask the nonprofit, founded by chef and humanitarian José Andrés, about the restaurant that made, say, the tacos that day. The conversations alleviate boredom and create a sense of engagement, Mook says.
“José is a big believer that our elections should be a celebration, that democracy in America is something that should not be a challenge, a hassle,” said Mook. “It should be a national holiday.”
The Georgia legislature added the new restrictions to close what some Republican lawmakers described as a loophole in the current law, which didn’t specifically prohibit politicians or political organizations from handing out food and drink to residents waiting their turn to vote. Georgia state law had prohibited politicians and the like from handing out money or gifts to voters, a practice known as “line warming,” which can be a form of bribery or electioneering. But the new provisions take the restrictions further, preventing anyone from passing out food and drink within the designated buffer zones, including nonprofits whose mission is humanitarian.
“We are disappointed that it may be more difficult to feed people and ease the burden of being in a long line as they engage in civic activities,” emailed Amirah Noaman, program director for Pizza to the Polls, a nonprofit that coordinates pizza deliveries and organizes food trucks to cater to voters.
“Ultimately, the issue is that long lines exist in the first place and eliminating that should be a priority over removing the option of food and beverages being distributed,” Noaman added in the email.
Other states have food and drink restrictions, too, but they typically have more flexibility than Georgia. In Montana, for instance, only a “candidate, a family member of a candidate, or a worker or volunteer for the candidate’s campaign” is prohibited from handing out food, drink “or anything of value” to voters on election days. New York State also bans the distribution of food and drink to voters, unless the “meat, drink, tobacco, refreshment or provision” has a value of less than a dollar.
The Georgia restrictions have “very little to do with the concern that is voiced: that people are electioneering around the polling place,” said Brandon of Fair Elections Center. “I think it has more to do with just a whole bunch of ideas that some of the legislators came up with, ‘Well, this will work well in discouraging voting in certain communities that have typically longer lines.’ And usually it’s in the communities of color.”
Ari Schaffer, spokesman for Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, said that last year the office “saw increased issues with candidates or political groups … giving away food and drink as an end run around Georgia laws prohibiting electioneering near a polling site and those prohibiting giving gifts as an inducement to vote.”
Schaffer said the new law allows groups to donate water to a poll manager, who can then distribute it to voters. “Groups that feel they need credit for providing refreshments to people can still do so as long as they are 150 feet away from any building hosting a polling location and 25 feet away from a voting line, and as long as they are providing refreshments to everybody without regard to whether they are voting or not,” Schaffer said in a statement to The Washington Post.
But Mook with World Central Kitchen said he worries that the rules are so broad and potentially confusing that authorities may not know how to enforce them. So instead, he worries that authorities will just tell organizations they’re not allowed to pass out refreshments. Mook said World Central Kitchen has already had one experience of being pushed away from a Georgia polling place — and it was before the law took effect.
“We were told, ‘You can’t be here,' even if we weren’t directly on the property,” said Mook. “Because people didn’t necessarily understand the differences between what we might be doing and, say, an actual effort to electioneer.”
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