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Election Day Freebies Can Be A Legal No-No — But Chicago Businesses Found A Way To Do Them Anyway

The Field Museum, Stan's Donuts and Flowers For Dreams were among a slew of Chicago organizations that wanted to reward voters for heading to the polls.

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DOWNTOWN — Most of the people who register to vote and show up on Election Day do so in the name of democracy and fair representation — but most wouldn’t turn away a free doughnut for exercising their civic duty. 

The only problem: Such offers can be a bit, uh, illegal due to Chicago’s questionable election history.

Local businesses promised free drinks, free food, free flowers and free swag to those who went to the ballot box on Tuesday. Heck, the Field Museum even offered voters free admission.

“We believe that voting really matters and we wanted to encourage everyone to get out there and make their voice heard during the election,” said Jaclyn Johnston, the museum’s public relations director. “We thought this was a great opportunity to sort of encourage people to get out there and do their part.”

RELATED: Thanks To Young Voters, Chicago Has Highest Midterm Turnout In 32 Years

But then the Sun-Times informed the museum its voters-only offer was potentially illegal, meaning the Field couldn’t offer free admission to only those who’d cast a ballot.

After that, bakery chain Stan’s Donuts nixed its planned deal: one free doughnut per voter.

The trouble stems from a voting law intended to discourage businesses from “buying” votes by offering people a reward for casting their ballot a certain way.

“It’s a throwback to prevent buying votes, enticing people to register to vote in exchange for some kind of financial reward. So technically the election code says nothing of value can be offered in exchange for voting or registering,” said Jim Allen, a spokesman for the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners. “Have I seen a prosecution involving one of those? No. I suppose you might if there was something more tangible.”

People who wanted to complain about a business offering a reward for voting would need to contact the State’s Attorney’s office, Allen said.

Of course, the Field Museum didn’t want to tell people they had to vote or who to vote for, Johnston said.

So the museum found a way to spread the Election Day cheer: It just extended free admission to everyone on Tuesday.

“We felt it was important to just open up the free day to everyone, whether you technically voted or not, just as a reminder to let people know how important that is,” Johnston said.

It was the museum’s first time doing such an offer for Election Day, but it was a hit.

The museum “had a really busy day,” Johnston said. “I know that we had hundreds more people than we were expecting.”

The Field wasn’t the only local group facing such a conundrum. Flowers for Dreams, a Chicago-based flower company, also wanted to encourage people to vote.

The flower company put up hundreds of posters around the city that asked, “What would it take to get you to vote?” On social media, it revealed that it’d host a giveaway of mini bouquets on Election Day. The giveaway would be open to all, but Flowers for Dreams encouraged people to head to the polls first.

“We’ve built some authority on flowers, certainly, and we have a great following and audience that listens to what we say and takes our recommendations seriously,” said the company’s founder, Steve Dyme, before the giveaway. “So, we’re trying to speak to our audience and say, ‘Hey, if there’s people among you that are disinterested in politics or maybe apathetic … we want to get you to the polls.’”

In Andersonville, a group of local businesses came together to offer freebies and discounts on Tuesday, but acknowledged that they couldn’t exactly reject a non-voter. 

“Did you know it’s illegal for businesses to offer a discount or freebie for voting? Well, it’s also illegal to suppress voting rights, fire someone because of their gender identity, and grab women by the you know what… so…,” an email to customers of boutique Milk Handmade, 5137 N. Clark St., read. “We can’t legally require you to vote before taking advantage of these offers. But we can tell you this: anyone who doesn’t vote gets a free eye roll with purchase.” 

Chicago ended up seeing its highest voter turnout in more than 30 years, with more than 843,000 people casting ballots.

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