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Starbucks' plan to reward voters gets warning from Washington state

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MILWAUKEE -- Voters will pick a new leader for the country today, and maybe pick up some free coffee, cheesecake, ice cream and other goodies, too.

But some authorities question whether such giveaways run afoul of election rules.

Starbucks Corp. is offering a free cup of coffee to anyone who reports voting today, while Krispy Kreme Doughnuts Inc. is giving away star-shaped doughnuts. Ice cream maker Ben and Jerry's is offering a free scoop to anyone, as part of a celebration of the election.

Most aren't requiring any proof of voting, such as an "I voted" sticker. Starbucks said it's using the honor system to dole out the free "tall" cups of coffee.

"If you care enough to vote, we care enough to give you a free cup of coffee," says an ad on the company's Web site.

But that could be construed as rewarding someone for voting and could violate federal and state law, said David Ammons, spokesman for the state elections division of Washington state, the home of Starbucks.

He said the state attorney general's office contacted Starbucks on Monday, telling them it was against the law.

"Starbucks is a good corporate neighbor and we're pleased they're trying to reward people for doing their civic duty, but unfortunately it simply is not allowed under federal law," Ammons said.

Several Starbucks representatives did not immediately respond to calls and e-mails seeking reaction to that request.

Ammons said officials wouldn't press for prosecution. The U.S. Department of Justice declined to comment on the issue.

Starbucks spokeswoman Lisa Passe said earlier in the day the company wouldn't disclose how much the promotion costs or how many cups of coffee would be given away.

"We're confident that this is a smart investment for our brand and that it's simply the right thing to do at a time when every vote counts," she said in an e-mail.

By late afternoon Monday, more than 127,000 people had indicated they would take advantage of the coffee giveaway on the online networking site Facebook.

Ammons suggested Starbucks offer a promotion not specifically tied to voting, like Ben and Jerry's, which will be giving a free scoop to each customer at its shops from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. today.

The company said in a statement it had planned to give free scoops only to people who voted but learned that certain laws may not allow it. Instead, it's celebrating the election with a "national party," said Walt Freese, Ben and Jerry's chief euphoria officer.

"Even though we're giving scoops away to everyone, regardless of whether they vote or not, we hope they still take part in their civic duty," Freese said.

Voters who save their ballot stubs can exchange them for a free cup of coffee at Aqus Cafe on H Street in Petaluma. Anyone who brings in a ballot stub today can receive a free medium cup at Aqus. Ballot stubs can also be entered in a drawing for prizes.

Eli's Cheesecake Co. of Chicago planned to give out free dessert slices today at a store on the city's Northwest side. Voters will be required to present their voting receipt, the company said in a statement.

Krispy Kreme is giving star-shaped doughnuts with red, white and blue sprinkles to anyone who mentions the promotion, said spokeswoman Ayana Hernandez, but customers won't be required to show an "I voted" sticker.

The company's 85 company-owned stores will be participating, along with an unknown number of its 145 franchisees, she said. Krispy Kreme estimates it'll give away about 200,000 of the doughnuts.

"It's just another way to give customers a free doughnut," Hernandez said. "It's not in any way tied to you have to be a member of a certain party, political party or anything like that."

There's also the possibility of free food from Chick-fil-A restaurants. The company says its local, independent operators -- perhaps a couple hundred of them -- will be doing voluntary giveaways of products like chicken strips, sandwiches and milkshakes on Tuesday. It's not clear if people will have to show proof that they voted to get the free food because the promotions are run at the local level, said Brenda Green, a spokeswoman for Chick-fil-A Inc.

The companies, for the most part, have shied away from endorsing specific candidates.

But in the primaries, the founders of Vermont-based Ben & Jerry's endorsed Democrat Barack Obama and donated two "ObamaMobiles" to his campaign to drive around the state and give away scoops of "Cherries for Change" ice cream.

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