Sycamore recently decided to give young people a discount for voting in the upcoming midterms. But the owners quickly discovered that the planned promotion was a federal crime.
On Oct. 13, the downtown restaurant posted a picture on its Facebook page saying that if 18- to 30-year-olds brought their “I Voted” stickers to the restaurant on Nov. 6, they’d get half-off on a sandwich.
In the following days, the post received a barrage of comments, some in support of the idea and some against it. And on Monday, Sycamore posted again, canceling the offer because of “the threat of legal action in response to our voter promotion” and thanking customers for their support.
Sycamore co-owner Sanford Speake said the sandwich special was intended to be a positive, socially motivated promotion to encourage voter registration.
“A healthy democracy is one in which everyone participates,” Speake said.
But the controversy centered around the legality of offering a discount to a particular group — in this case, young voters.
Columbia resident Josh Kezer, one of the critical commenters, cited a federal statute that prohibits receiving or giving any type of expenditure for registering or not registering to vote or for voting a particular way.
Kezer said in an interview with the Missourian that although it wasn’t likely Sycamore intended to discriminate against some voters, that’s what happened.
“Anything that targets a specific demographic is unfair to all other demographics,” Kezer said, referencing the age range in the sandwich promotion.
He also emphasized that he didn’t threaten to take legal action against Sycamore and that he supports having a civil conversation about voting rights.
Speake said there was no explicit threat of prosecution against Sycamore, but the fact that people were so vocally against the promotion in the Facebook comments was enough to make him cancel it. The federal statute had potential consequences for both Sycamore and any customers who would’ve participated.
MU law professor and election law expert Richard Reuben said the law has historically been interpreted as prohibiting rewards for people registering to vote.
“In my view, that’s not what the federal statute was aimed at,” Reuben said.
He said he personally doesn’t see any harm in Sycamore offering discounts to people who voted.
“The application of that rule to a situation like this is, in my view, ridiculous,” he said.
Kezer’s support of the federal statute stemmed partly from the fact that many 18- to 30-year-olds in Columbia are college students. He said the largest universities in Columbia promote liberal politics and that that’s exactly the demographic Sycamore targeted for this promotion.
But Speake said he got the idea for the promotion from a TV segment about how millennials don’t vote. It resonated with him because he has two kids, 17 and 19.
“More people voting is better for everyone,” Speake said.
Speake said he was also simply trying to draw in young people to a restaurant frequented by a mostly older crowd.
In response to comments that suggested the promotion was ageist, Speake said, “It’s not cynical. It’s a small business.”
Reuben said he thinks the federal statute would be struck down if someone were willing to take a case like Sycamore’s to federal court. However, he said, that requires a lot of legal fees and isn’t a task that could be easily taken on by a small business.
“The problem is, nobody wants to be the test case,” Reuben said. “Until somebody does, we’ll have to deal with that absurd result.”
Supervising editor is Tynan Stewart.