22

In the US Democratic Party’s presidential primary debate a few days ago, candidate Andrew Yang announced his campaign will conduct a 1-year experiment with Universal Basic Income - by paying USD 1000 to 10 families for a year. He encouraged people to sign up for this on his website, which currently says "Win $1000 a month!"

Now, obviously the campaign is not paying a lot of people money; and you don't need to vote for Yang to qualify, but - isn't this kind of promising money illegal in a political campaign? Also, regardless of the law - is this not considered too inappropriate? Too "bread and circuses"? I mean, I know that US politics is awash with money - light money/dark money, soft money/hard money, PACed money, bundled money, SuperPACed money and so on and so forth; but still, I found it weird that Yang would just outright put that forward.

(PS - I realize this question is half-way between Politics.SX and Law.SX)

  • 4
    Considering that all politics involves promising to give money via policy it probably is going to be fine. Not writing as an answer as 'probably' isn't (in this case) – Display name Sep 16 at 13:41
  • @Orangesandlemons IANAL, but I think there might be a legal difference between whether the funds come from the government treasury or from campaign funds. – Philipp Sep 16 at 19:15
  • I think this question should be reworded "How would Yang's UBI experiment NOT be considered 'buying votes?'" Because that's what the legal question would boil down to. – Wes Sayeed Sep 16 at 20:45
  • 1
    @einpoklum; KDog's source is cynical in its tone, and basically boils down to "Maybe, but the FEC probably couldn't do anything about it anyway." Funds don't have to come from the campaign's coffers to be a "campaign expenditure". Otherwise, it would've been case closed when Trump paid off Stormy Daniels with his own personal money. Legally, any money that benefits a candidate is a campaign expenditure unless it was an expense the candidate would've incurred regardless of their bid for office. Was Yang already doing this experiment before he ever thought about running for president? – Wes Sayeed Sep 16 at 21:05
  • 2
    Such questions are doomed to fail. Democrats will answer "legal" and Republicans will answer "illegal". Which answer will be highest voted will depend on how many of each faction's supporters happens to stumble upon this question while it's on the hot network list. – vsz Sep 17 at 13:09
17

For what it's worth, Yang's [team] said

“It’s something that has not been done before, so we relied heavily on our legal team, and we feel confident moving forward after talking to them about it,” says the aide to Yang’s campaign. “Our legal team has walked through all FEC compliance issues and given us the go [ahead].”

Asked about the possible criticism of vote buying, the aide said the campaign does not view it as vote buying.

The contrary opinion is present in that TIME article and it's the same as what has been quoted by K Dog.

A couple of law professors have been quoted by CBS as siding with Yang on this matter, i.e. they thought it wasn't a law violation.

So my conclusion is that insofar we don't know how this [potential] dispute will end, until some authorities (courts, FEC and what not) do rule on this (and that might be subject to appeals, etc.)

And a nearly funny quote:

"The campaign tactic raises numerous novel legal questions," said Paul Ryan, Vice President of Policy and Litigation at Common Cause. "If only we had a quorum at the FEC, so the Commission could provide guidance on this cutting-edge, novel use of campaign funds!"

  • 4
    @einpoklum: Apparently they cannot make major decisions without a quorum, or even meet. (There are also some related questions here on the FEC.) But even when they could they were rather ineffective when it came to campaign finance issues: papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3151788 – Fizz Sep 17 at 6:33
  • 1
    @einpoklum: Actually, they put out a press release a few days ago of what they can and cannot do without quorum. But it's fairly thick with bureaucratic jargon, so... – Fizz Sep 17 at 6:43
  • 2
    @einpoklum - it's not "like he's saying" that, the FEC is not functioning. – PoloHoleSet Sep 17 at 15:25
  • 1
    @einpoklum npr.org/2019/08/30/755523088/… – Bryan Krause Sep 17 at 16:24
  • 1
    Yang himself graudated columbia law school. He probably understands, as most of us suspect, that the law doesn't prohibit/forbid his innovative campaign strategy. – dolphin_of_france Sep 17 at 18:18
12

Results: Questionable, will ultimately be decided by the FEC and/or the Courts (the FEC doesn't currently have a quorum, so does not even have enough members to rule on allegations of wrongdoing or issue any punishment, so probably nothing will come of it).

Yang's team obviously believes this to be legal. But a few groups have voiced skepticism.

Andrew Yang's $1,000-a-month 'Freedom Dividend' lottery is now open “He’s using campaign money and the problem is federal law prohibits campaign money from being converted to the personal use of any person,” said Adav Noti, a top lawyer at campaign finance watchdog Campaign Legal Center, who once worked for the Federal Election Commission.

“It sure looks like giving people $1,000 cash in exchange for nothing is converting campaign funds into the personal use for those people and that is not lawful.”

...

“Yang’s proposed Freedom Dividend giveaway of campaign cash would violate the personal use prohibition of federal campaign finance law,” said Craig Holman, an expert at the watchdog group Public Citizen. “This expense has no campaign purpose and the fact that Yang is already making a similar expenditure out of his own pocket shows that it is irrespective of his campaign.”

Also, I didn't explore any unauthorized/illegal running of lotteries, sometimes called number running.

  • 6
    "This expense has no campaign purpose and the fact that Yang is already making a similar expenditure out of his own pocket shows that it is irrespective of his campaign" An alternative explanation is that Yang is using his own money for his campaign rather than the other way around. – rtpax Sep 16 at 22:15
  • @rtpax Could be. I read it as he was doing both, expending campaign and personal funds to approximately the same ends. – K Dog Sep 16 at 22:21
  • 2
    Re lotteries: Companies give money and stuff away all the time. The magic words seem to be "no purchase necessary." – Kevin Sep 17 at 4:58
  • 3
    @rtpax To be fair, if Yang signs $10M to his campaign then those no longer are his funds but his campaign funds and then they must be used according to the rules. If he wanted to spend $2M of his money in non-campaign approved actions, then he should have given $8M to his campaign and spend the $2M separately. – SJuan76 Sep 17 at 8:54
7

No probably not illegal.

  1. Andrew Yang is actually an independently wealthy guy. He can probably just finance it himself, without ever using his campaign funds.

  2. The idea is so next level that I don't think it has ever been contemplated, and therefore is unlikely to be prohibited by law.

  • 10
    I'm not even sure using campaign funds would be illegal as-is. Campaigns give out "stuff" all the time, from pencils to hats to bumper stickers. If anyone knows a limit to the monetary value of "stuff" given out, or if there's a specific prohibition about cash, I'd be interested to see it. – Geobits Sep 16 at 14:34
  • 3
    @Geobits: I agree. The fact of the matter is, Yang can frame his giveaway in a number of different ways. In fact, he called it an experiment: inviting all americans, not just pledged voters, to participate. If it is a social experiment, there are literally no law that says a campaign can't finance social experiments. Campaigns routinely spends million on focus groups, and other research projects, so how is his proposal different? – dolphin_of_france Sep 16 at 15:15
  • @Geobits: The "stuff" campaigns give away have candidates' names and campaign slogans on them, so you're like a walking campaign ad with them. This is different. – einpoklum Sep 16 at 20:46
  • Comments deleted. Please keep your comments relevant to the answer. This is not the place to discuss the pros and cons of UBI or to discuss social inequality. For more information on what comments should and should not be used for, please refer to the help center article about the commenting privilege. – Philipp Sep 19 at 17:01
  • This question is being discussed on meta – Benjamin Sep 23 at 14:23
6

So long as it is not financed by campaign donations and is not tied to any specific voting requirement, it doesn't seem to violate any laws.

Vote Buying:

Buying votes is illegal. However, the wording on it is that one may not pay someone "either to vote or withhold his vote, or to vote for or against any candidate". So long as the funds are not issued on condition of promising to vote for Yang, and have an equal opportunity go to someone who doesn't currently support him as to one who does, then it doesn't run afoul of this.
It's certainly a viable tactic to make someone like the candidate more, but so long as there are no political strings attached, it seems valid.

Compare to the wording against vote buying with congressional appropriations, which prohibits "interfering with, restraining, or coercing any individual in the exercise of his right to vote at any election."

Campaign funds

First of all, it's entirely possible that Yang will be paying this out of his own personal funds. If so, then it would be unrelated to his campaign funding, but the laws on gift taxes would apply. The per-year limit to a given person is currently $15,000, though, so giving 10 people each $12,000 won't trigger any taxes (which Yang would be responsible for, anyway).

As for using campaign funds directly, I couldn't find anything on the FEC's website for candidates which explicitly covers this. The closest might be the rules around personal use, which seems to be a catch-all. With a few exceptions, "if the expense would exist even in the absence of the candidacy or even if the officeholder were not in office, then the personal use ban applies."
It's unclear whether giving away money would be considered personal use of the recipient (which is banned) or whether it would be fulfilling a campaign promise, and thus a campaign activity (and thus permitted). The FEC would need to clarify this one way or the other.


All the usual caveats apply to this - IANAL, I am not an expert in this field, and anyone can try to make a case against anything in the courts. It's very possible I missed some relevant law, or that a good lawyer could make a solid case as to why this is problematic.

  • That's not the definition of personal use. The reason buttons, bumper stickers, etc are allowed and say TV sets or 1000 dollar checks aren't is the ban on personal use – K Dog Sep 17 at 0:42
  • @KDog I’m not sure what you’re trying to say - that sounds like exactly what I quoted. If it’s for the campaign (buttons, etc) it’s not personal use. If you’re buying a TV for your campaign office, it’s not personal use (ditto computers, desks, etc). If you’re buying a TV for yourself, it is personal use and this banned. – Bobson Sep 17 at 0:49
  • You're not buying a tv for the office, you are buying it for the potential voter. It's their personal use, not the campaign's or the candidate's. The voter can't derive any real value. That's why the $1k is problematic – K Dog Sep 17 at 1:05
  • 2
    @KDog Ah, I see what you're saying now. "[P]ersonal use is any use of funds... [for] any person that would exist irrespective of the [campaign]". There are some exceptions (charity and gifts), but overall, you're right. That said, after checking the actual regulation, I think that because he promised it as part of a campaign it's in a grey area. The gist seems to be "these are personal, unless they're for a campaign activity". Is fulfilling a campaign promise to give away money a campaign activity? I can see it being argued both ways. – Bobson Sep 17 at 1:23
  • 1
    @KDog And I edited it to reflect that ambiguity. – Bobson Sep 17 at 1:27

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.