The Georgia Attorney General’s office will review allegations of election law violations against a state representative who handed out pizzas to voters at a Brookhaven polling place in 2018.
State Rep. Matthew Wilson (D-Brookhaven) allegedly “made gifts” to voters as they waited in line at Cross Keys High School polling location at 1626 North Druid Hills Road. At the time, Wilson was a first-time candidate for the Georgia House of Representatives. His District 80 includes parts of Brookhaven and Sandy Springs.
According to a Georgia State Election Board meeting on Feb. 24, two separate complaints were filed regarding Wilson after he bought four pizzas and passed out slices to those in line to vote. The Election Board referred Wilson’s case to the Georgia Attorney General’s office for further consideration.
“After receiving permission from the poll manager, I passed out about $25 worth of pizza at my polling location on Election Day in 2018 to people who had been waiting in line for several hours,” said Wilson in an emailed statement. “I didn’t introduce myself as a candidate and did not campaign. As my counsel stated to the State Elections Board, we do not believe that any law was broken. I look forward to resolving this administrative matter soon.”
Wilson is accused of violating Georgia Code sections 21-2-414(d) and 21-2-570, which indicate one violation could be treated as a felony and the other as a misdemeanor. One places restrictions on campaigning within the vicinity of a polling location. The other prohibits a person from giving or receiving gifts for the purpose of registering or voting for a particular candidate.
The Attorney General’s office could not immediately clarify the potential penalties, but said the matter could be handled as a criminal or civil case. A spokesperson for the Secretary of State’s Office said the case could be handled as a non-criminal matter with a fine or warning if Wilson is found to have violated the code.
According to the Georgia election code, the penalties for misdemeanors could include a fine or six months or less in county jail. The penalties for a felony under Georgia election code could include a fine of $10,000 or less or imprisonment.
According to the discussion at the Feb. 24 Election Board meeting, Wilson — whose own polling station is Cross Keys — went to buy pizzas after seeing long voting lines at the high school. A member of his campaign, Amanda Lee, then took pictures of Wilson passing out pizzas, which were later posted to his social media and then deleted.
Wilson previously stated he asked for permission from the poll manager to pass out food. Lee allegedly did not seek approval from the poll manager before taking photographs. The Election Board issued Lee a letter of instruction directing her not to violate the code again.
“I am sorry that this happened,” Lee said at the Feb. 24 meeting. “I didn’t need to take pictures.”
At the meeting, attorney Jeremy Berry spoke on behalf of Wilson. He requested for the matter to be dismissed or for the issuance of a letter of instruction instead of referral to the Attorney General. In regards to the violation of entering a polling place, Berry cited the 1998 Georgia Supreme Court Case Hendry v. Smith as precedent. In that case, the mayor of Hampton, Georgia was up for re-election and the polling place was the City Council chambers. The mayor was in his office that day and twice went to the chambers to talk to the poll manager. The court ruled the mayor’s mere presence in the office was not a violation of election law.
Berry also addressed the allegation that Wilson gave out pizzas in exchange for votes, saying Wilson or the Election Board could not know for sure if anyone who actually received pizza stayed in line to vote, and that Wilson did not wear any campaign paraphernalia or pass out campaign literature.
“Mr. Wilson … merely offered pizza to some people who were hungry,” Berry said. “He had no discussions with them about whether they were voting, whether they intended to stay in line or leave, who they were voting for, whether they were voting for him, whether they were voting Republican or Democrat. All he did was hand out pizza. Nothing more, nothing less.”
Wilson’s case was just one of dozens passed along to the Attorney General’s office, according to a press release from the Secretary of State’s Office. The press release referred to the accused by their first names and last initials only.
In the wake of former President Donald Trump’s false claims of election fraud in the 2020 presidential race, Georgia has been the subject of a national conversation surrounding voter suppression and access.
Georgia voters have previously reported long voting wait times in past elections — sometimes five or more hours — and Wilson is not the only person who has handed out snacks to waiting voters in Brookhaven or Georgia in recent elections. On Jan. 5 during the U.S. Senate runoff in Georgia, a local resident passed out snacks outside Ashford Park Elementary School in Brookhaven. The snack station included a sign with the phone number of the “Georgia Voter Protection Line” run by the Democratic Party of Georgia.
On March 1, the Georgia House of Representatives passed HB 531, which would impose harsher restrictions on voters. Part of that bill would prohibit anyone from passing out food or drink to voters waiting in line. The bill will next be voted on by the state Senate.