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Grand Forks bar's get-out-the-vote move backfires

Hot or not? That's the question some Grand Forks city leaders are asking about window displays at downtown businesses such as Gilly's night club. The concerns are prompting the Downtown Design Review Board to examine its rules on window signage. (Photo by John Stennes)

The North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation is investigating a downtown Grand Forks bar's promotion of rewarding voters with a free beer.

Peter Welte, Grand Forks County state's attorney, said he is otherwise "reserving all comment on this until we get all the facts."

The investigation includes the involvement of Tyrone Grandstrand, a candidate for Grand Forks mayor in the June 12 election.

The promotion by Gilly's Bar and Grill, a popular bar for young adults, awarded customers with a free drink if they displayed an "I voted" sticker. On Friday, Gilly's provided bus transportation from the UND campus to the county office building downtown, where absentee voting is available.

Debbie Nelson, county auditor, said her staff counted 35 people who arrived on the bus, which Gilly's had rented for the weekend for Springfest.

Grandstrand posted details of the promotion on his Facebook page, and brought "I voted" stickers to the county office building the Friday before Springfest.

Nelson said her office typically doesn't hand out those stickers during absentee voting.

"I've been going around campus all semester, trying to get out the vote early," said Grandstrand, who was the UND student body president from 2008 to 2010, and represents the UND area on the Grand Forks City Council. "When I found out what (Gilly's) was doing, then I told them to get on the bus.

"I went to eight fraternities and sororities last Monday, telling them to get on the bus."

Welte said it's not illegal for a person or business to provide transportation to the polls or reward the act of voting. Starbucks, for instance, has given free coffee to voters. But it is illegal for candidates to provide transportation or beer in exchange for a favorable vote.

Owner: Not soliciting votes

Josh Gilleland, owner of Gilly's, acknowledged that he is a casual friend of Grandstrand. But he denied that the promotion was designed to solicit votes for Grandstrand in his contest against incumbent Mayor Mike Brown.

"It's one thing to promote a candidate, but it's another thing to give something to vote for somebody," Gilleland said. "Hands down, I wouldn't be a part of that."

He said he is careful because his business is reliant on getting a liquor license from the city. "I'm not going to do anything close to illegal or unethical," he said. "No way I'm going to say 'Vote for Grandstrand and we'll give you a free drink.'"

He said the original idea was for several downtown businesses to provide incentives to students to vote, but that fizzled. Gilleland said that the flyers he distributed on campus about the voting bus touted the measure on the Fighting Sioux nickname as a reason to vote. He said his flyers did not take a position on the nickname "because I don't want to offend any customer."

He said many students don't realize they can vote in Grand Forks. "We were promoting the idea that they should vote here," Gilleland said. "We want students to get a sense of ownership in this town since they spend 80 percent of their time here."

Grandstrand said UND student government provided buses for students to vote early at the Alerus Center in 2008, when he was the student body president.

"This was basically the same idea, just bringing people there, not telling them what to do," he said.