Did Dan Ariely Just Suggest Breaking the Law?

Dan Ariely, who writes my favorite biweekly Wall Street Journal advice column (he doesn’t have much competition in that narrowly defined niche), offered some advice that some of the commenters suggested may be illegal.

Here’s the question, followed by Dan’s answer:


Many of my friends and co-workers say they care about voting, but their spotty track record suggests otherwise. How can I convince them to go out and vote in the upcoming election?

My guess is that your friends aren’t lying to you—they do care about voting, and they may even plan to vote. But on Election Day, they get derailed by other obligations. To change their priorities, I would try to make the voting process a social event. Invite your friends and co-workers to meet at a bar or restaurant near the polling place, and when they show up, tell them that you’re buying beer only for people who have already voted. Encourage them to go to the polls in small groups and come back quickly. By combining fun and personal accountability, you’ll make voting much more compelling.


It’s the part about buying beer that got a couple readers upset:

  • In the case of buying a drink for someone who has voted, Dan’s suggestion may be illegal. I am not a lawyer, but I think it is illegal in many (most?) places to provide alcohol in return for voting.  This goes back to the days 100 years ago when political parties (in Chicago?  New York?) would provide lots of free alcohol and then take voters to the polls. Dan’s suggestion is still a good one in that it is effective in achieving the desired result.  It may simply be illegal.
  • If it stays there, you’re likely okay. However, if, as you suggest,  people leave, vote, return and then you buy them a beer you’ve likely violated voting laws in a number of states. Some years ago, a coffee shop, I believe, got into trouble for offering a discount to people with the “I Voted” stickers given at the polls. The theory is, I think, that the act of not casting a ballot is, in a way, a vote and giving a tangible  incentive to vote to someone who normally wouldn’t have cast a ballot is vote buying.   It’s similar to the idea that not speaking is an exercise of free speech.

I’m sure if a politician or someone working for a politician made a concerted effort to offer people a free beer as a way to encourage them to vote, then that would be illegal.

But I see no problem with doing so among friends.

Since many of this person’s friends seem to want to vote, this little incentive may be just what is needed to get them to the polls. It doesn’t seem as if Dan is suggesting that the person would only buy beer for those who vote a certain way; the person is just encouraging his or her friends to vote. And if someone is trying to make a statement by not voting, I would hope that person is strong enough in that conviction that the offer of a free beer would not change his or her mind. But if you really want that free beer, then you can go to the polls and just cast a blank vote.

I know a lot of people had watch parties during the last Presidential election, inviting people over to watch the results come in while having a couple of drinks. My guess is that the people throwing those parties were probably inviting just like-minded people to those get-togethers. If the host had told people that the only way they could come to the party was is they had voted, would that be illegal?

I don’t think so, and if it is, then it’s one of those crazy laws that needs to change.

So I applaud Dan’s suggestion, and I’m going to try it myself:

For anyone who has read all the way to the end of this post, your next beer is on me…

*image from Marketwatch

2 thoughts on “Did Dan Ariely Just Suggest Breaking the Law?

  1. Good post Jim. I like Dan Ariely as well. It still shocks me (though it shouldn’t anymore) what people are willing to get upset about. If he suggested buying drinks for everyone who voted for Candidate X, sure, that would be wrong. In my view, encouraging one’s friends to exercise a right we are fortunate to have is actually the right thing to do.


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