[Image courtesy of Yummyness]

Last week, the Appleton, WI city attorney ruled that doughnuts – at least those provided by candidates to poll workers – were pastries non grata in city elections:

City Attorney Jim Walsh ruled on the sticky situation last week. In February, a conservative civic group cried foul over the pastries that are traditionally delivered to election poll workers as a thank you from elected officials.

“We determined that there was no illegal activity, and there was no unethical activity,” Walsh said Thursday. “But because the state Government Accountability Board recommends only the clerk provide food, we suggested to the council we don’t do this anymore.”

At first glance, this dispute appears good for a chuckle, but the issues behind it are (believe it or not!) very serious. Many states and localities have detailed statutes in place regarding rewarding anyone for participating in the voting process; the most obvious of these is vote-buying, but in recent years we have seen concerns related to offers of free ice cream, coffee or other rewards to anyone sporting an “I Voted” sticker.

The problem is that these laws are broad enough – and concerns about vote-buying strong enough – that other, seemingly more innocuous activities raise eyebrows as well. In some communities, bake sales by students or other community groups have been subjected to increased scrutiny because of concerns that sponsoring organizations could use them to violate the ban on electioneering at the polls. The issue in Appleton’s “doughnut-gate” is even more attenuated – gifts by candidates to election workers on Election Day – but the same concerns apply. Indeed, in issuing its ruling the city cited a state ruling that the 2008 Obama campaign could not provide box lunches to pollworkers in Milwaukee.

Of course, much of this controversy is a direct result of the high political stakes across the nation. It’s no coincidence that Appleton is located in one of the most heated state political climates in recent memory; consequently, no one appears willing to give anyone else the benefit of the doubt where election integrity is concerned:

“Right now there’s a lot of political tension and it has manifested itself in how the citizenry reacts to every simple thing like this,” [the City Clerk] said. “Whether it’s right or wrong — it’s a perceived idea that it’s not appropriate.”

The good news is that Appleton’s polling places are not doughnut-free zones; poll workers will still be permitted to bring their own. Still, it’s hard not to see a bit of metaphor in the loss of sweetness at the polls.