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Joe voter

November 05, 2008

We're a long way from Tammany Hall, so the offers of a free star-shaped doughnut or a cup of coffee to anyone who voted Tuesday seemed like an innocent enough marketing stunt. The various states -- including California -- that warned Starbucks, Krispy Kreme, Ben & Jerry's and other businesses off their election-day promotions came off as ... well, killjoys.

Then again, it's not like Starbucks was handing out lattes, just the filtered stuff.

And it's reassuring to take in a brief American history lesson on this subject. The laws that ban gifts for votes changed the political landscape after the days of graft embodied by William M. "Boss" Tweed, the head of Tammany Hall, the onetime Democratic political machine of New York. Back in the late 1800s, impoverished immigrants in the New York area were offered food and money in exchange for their votes; businesses regularly handed out gifts to employees on the understanding that they would cast ballots for certain candidates. In exchange, the business owners could count on favors from the political bosses, including government contracts. This went on for decades; one politician who came up through the machine system, Al Smith, won the Democratic presidential nomination in 1928.

There was nothing boss-like, or even remotely partisan, about Starbucks' goodwill offer and others like it, just a bit of civic-mindedness combined with healthy mercantile self-interest -- businesses branding themselves on the minds of voters. But a free cup of coffee offered pretty much everywhere in the United States for any vote could in future years, in the minds of election officials, become an offer made only in districts where one party or another is dominant, and grow more partisan from there. That's not even counting the sex shop in New York that offered voters a free product called the Maverick, the description of which would probably violate The Times' refinement standards.

In the end, the businesses made the generous and face-saving decision to offer the freebies to all who came in and asked. Thus election day 2008 was a day when everyone could be a winner -- at least for a small window of time, until the returns came in.

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