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There is a PAC that is offering a discount code offering free uber/lyft/etc rides to transport voters to the polls, in Pennsylvania.

Wouldn't this constitute a blatant violation of 18 U.S. Code § 597:

Whoever makes or offers to make an expenditure to any person, either to vote or withhold his vote, or to vote for or against any candidate; and

Whoever solicits, accepts, or receives any such expenditure in consideration of his vote or the withholding of his vote—

Shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than one year, or both; and if the violation was willful, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two years, or both.

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  • On the face of it, yes, unless the law is interpreted as meaning "a specific candidate" – user6726 Nov 7 '16 at 5:43
  • I don't know about that - they're going to the polls - are they actually saying that they are being given the code to vote? Or just to get to the venue? – jimsug Nov 7 '16 at 7:57
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    I have heard that it is common for some churches to offer bus services to help people get to the poll, with nobody complaining about that. If we are treading that tightly, offering your neighbour a ride to the poll station could be considered a crime, too (the increased mass of the vehicle leads to increased fuel consumption, wear of brakes, etc). – SJuan76 Nov 7 '16 at 12:28
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    Doesn't "expenditure to any person to [influence that person's vote]" mean that you can't pay people directly? Paying a transportation company to transport them to the polls is not making an expenditure to a voter. – phoog Nov 7 '16 at 15:32
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    Does the voter have to promise to vote in any particular race in any particular way to take advantage of the Uber offer? – user662852 Nov 7 '16 at 17:19
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There is no money being offered or given to the voter. There is a long-running traditional bipartisan expenditure in Pennsylvania known variously as street money and get out the vote money that is legally used to reimburse volunteers for expenses to drive voters to the polls. The second article linked asserts this is a first amendment protected right. This seems in line with such historical expenditures.

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No, making it easier to vote by transporting people to the polls is not considered providing payment in return for registering or voting. GOTV efforts regularly include free transportation to the polls, so long as the free ride is not limited to voters who promise to vote for a particular candidate or party.

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This would have to be tested in court. This document from the Dept. of Justice and the National Institute of Justice, Federal Prosecution of Election Offenses 5th ed dated May 1988, points out that the law was (accidentally?) modified by act of Congress with this bit:

SEC. 201. (a)(1) Chapter 29 of title 18, United States Code, is amended by striking out section 591. (2) The table of sections for chapter 29 of title 18, United States Code, is amended by striking out the item relating to section 591.

18 USC 591 was a set of definitions restricting the prohibited acts – as it stands, there are no limitations on 18 USC 597. The DOJ note observes that

A literal reading of Section 597 is theoretically capable of reaching anything that can be characterized as an "expenditure" which is made for the purpose of affecting the voting process at any proceeding that can be characterized as an "election...." The repeal of this definitional section has thus for the first time left 18 U.S.C. 597 technically unencumbered by restrictive concepts that formerly confined its scope to the federal context. It is the position of the Criminal Division that the repeal of this definitional section was not intended by Congress to create in 18 U.S.C. 597 a vote-buying statute of virtually unlimited scope. Rather, it seems that the reason Congress repealed 18 U.S.C. 591 was out of a belief that the definitions contained therein were redundant to the definitional section governing the Federal Election Campaign Act, 2 U.S.C. 431.

(subsequently reclassified 52 USC 30101). The term "expenditure" is defined there as exclude "(ii) nonpartisan activity designed to encourage individuals to vote or to register to vote".

Since "expenditure" is not defined, we might (misguidedly) conclude that it only means "payment of money". But "free beer if you vote for Wally" is exactly the kind of vote-buying that the law was designed to criminalize. Giving something of value is an expenditure: a ride to the polls is something of value.

The rest of the sentence outlaws expenditures

either to vote or withhold his vote, or to vote for or against any candidate

This means, then, that an expenditure made to a person to vote is against the law (and, it does not matter whether this is a federal or a state election, since that part was wiped out). The current (8th) edition of Federal Prosecution of Election Offenses does not have the same disclaimer language about how DoJ intends to interpret the law.

Were the matter to end up in court, there would be a predictable tussle over the latter of the law versus legislative intent. In this case, I suspect that the legislative intent side would prevail, since the existing law is of questionable constitutionality, owing to its unrestricted nature.

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