By Dylan Lynch
Ballots and beer seem to be sewn into the very fabric of this nation.
Many Americans can relate to having a drink or two while watching the election returns, and then, maybe a few more either in celebration or disappointment.
According to a 2014 World Health Organization report, America ranked 48th in the world for alcohol consumption measured in liters per capita per year. Take that, 49th-ranked Cyprus!
The report further notes that of the 9.2 liters drank by an “average American,” 50 percent of that is beer. In addition, America’s unique system of governance is ingrained in every American. Maybe it’s not perfect, but it’s ours.
Indeed, the relationship between beer and elections seems to have started at the very beginning. In 1777, James Madison sought to obtain office without “the corrupting influence of spirituous liquors” and promptly lost the election. Madison had not learned from the story of a young, aspiring politician who, in 1758, once spent his entire campaign budget on about 150 gallons of alcohol to win a seat in the Virginia House of Burgess. This candidate had learned from a failed campaign in 1775, where he had pointedly neglected to offer alcohol to the electorate. That candidate: George Washington.
By many accounts Election Day used to look more like a frat party than a solemn act of civic participation (perhaps all the more because women usually couldn’t vote). But the days of rowdy elections began to wane in 1811, when Maryland is credited with passing the first campaign finance reform law, which prohibited purchasing alcohol for voters. Still, as you scan state election code sections, you can see the remnants of a different time.
Louisiana strictly prohibits a polling place from being in a place where alcoholic content is served to the public. The state does allow an exception for a nonprofit whose main purpose is not to serve beer—think VFW or American Legion Halls. In Georgia and Maryland, the sale of alcohol can be prohibited by local jurisdictions on election days.
Counties in Oklahoma that choose to authorize the sale of alcohol by the individual drink cannot prohibit such sales on the day of any election, provided that it is not otherwise prohibited by law. Puerto Rico has a similar provision but exempts certified restaurants and bars in cruise ships.
Fortunately for George Washington and unfortunately for James Madison, they did not live in Montana. According to Montana statute, the distribution of alcohol to a voter within 100 feet of a polling place is expressly prohibited. In Minnesota, it is a misdemeanor offense to bring or drink “intoxicating liquor or 3.2 percent malt liquor” in a polling place or to even be intoxicated while at the polls. In New Mexico, the boundary extends to 200 feet, and if you’re a member of the precinct board, Election Day is a day of sobriety.
For better or worse, it seems America has gone the way of Madison and not of Washington. So, if you decide to crack open a cold one on the next election, make sure you check your state election code first. Maybe just wait to imbibe until after you’ve voted and are safely away from your polling place.
And residents of Georgia and Maryland? You may want to plan ahead and stock your fridge.
Dylan Lynch is a policy associate with NCSL’s Elections and Redistricting Program.