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Let's say you want run for office as an independent candidate in a congressional or state legislative district that is expected to be a close election.

You run a quiet campaign for the purpose of winning votes from more ideological extreme members of the other party. A Republican ghost candidate would say something like "this Democrat votes against X progressive policy"; something that is factually correct, but is faked in order to get votes. A Democrat may say something like "Trump won, if you want to decertify the election vote for me".

Is it legal to run a sham campaign as an independent on paper or minor party candidate and advertise yourself quietly to swing close elections? Specifically I'm asking if the idea of lying about your political positions to get votes and potentially swing an election.

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    Are you asking whether lying in politics is legal?? Oct 20, 2021 at 10:28
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    Isn't this basically what Kanye West was trying to do with his "Birthday Party" candidacy? i.e. swing enough black voters away from voting for Biden to work in Trump's favor? (I don't think he was ever seriously expecting to do well, but it's pretty hard to read that guy's motives. Maybe it was just a way to sell more albums?) Oct 20, 2021 at 13:53
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    @DarrelHoffman The next question would be "is it illegal to accept an office won in a fake campaign whose only goal was to promote the candidate's businesses (like a a TV show, golf courses, country clubs and a hotel chain)?" But it's pretty hard to read that guy's motives. Oct 20, 2021 at 16:35
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    @Drudge no. How often has a non major party won an office in the US in modern times/21st century? Almost never. Even if you did hypothetically you could refuse to take office. Oct 21, 2021 at 13:32
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    Just mentioning: things like that is why we should really change our election systems. There are various systems that have less such problems, like systems where you give a ranking list of candidates instead of a single vote. But I admit the money influence problem is even worse. Oct 21, 2021 at 19:26

3 Answers 3

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Yes, the Minnesota GOP is involved in supporting two marijuana legalization parties - Legal Marijuana Now (LMN) and Grassroots-Legalize Marijuana (GLM).

While many of the candidates are longtime cannabis reformers, a number of them are running as a ruse. They’re Republicans pulling a dirty ballot trick. Many of these candidates have no prior experience in electoral politics and have done nothing previously to help end cannabis arrests. Some have little intention of legalizing marijuana, now or ever. Some have openly admitted that they’re running primarily to siphon off Democratic votes so that Republican legislative candidates will win. (Leafly, 10/20/20, emphasis added)

Post election, the GOP retained control of the Minnesota Senate one of only two split state legislatures, along with Alaska, by one vote1.

Tyler Becvar was a vocal Republican supporter who ran for state Senate in Minnesota’s 27th District as a Legal Marijuana Now Party member. ... Becvar had never before taken a public stand on legalization. But he was able to garner 2,699 votes—6.68% of the total. That was enough to unseat Sen. Dan Sparks, a Democrat, who lost to Republican challenger Gene Dornink by 1,818 votes. That single race may have tipped the chamber to the Republicans—and killed the statewide cannabis legalization bill in the Senate. (Leafly, 5/6/21, emphasis added)

An LMN candidate even admitted directly:

Four months before Legal Marijuana Now Party candidate Adam Weeks died in September, ... he told a close friend that he had been recruited by Republicans to draw votes away from Democrats. In a May 20 voicemail message provided to the Star Tribune, Weeks told a longtime friend that Republicans in the Second District approached him two weeks before the filing deadline to run for Congress in the hopes he’d “pull votes away” from incumbent DFL Rep. Angie Craig and give an advantage to the “other guy,” Tyler Kistner, the Republican-endorsed candidate. (Star Tribune, 10/28/20, emphasis added)

The Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) party was aware of these parties and their ties to the GOP as early as summer 2020, and filed an FEC report against weeks "for not filing a campaign finance report and dug up more than 100 social media posts in which he professed support for Republican candidates and conservative policies" (Star Tribune, 10/28/20).

I can only assume that because the FEC report complained only about disclosures, not somehow being a "sham candidate," that there was no legal way to block the GOP support of LMN and GLM.


1: The tally is 34 GOP - 31 DFL - 2 Independent. The Independents left the DFL recently. While they may not have legalized weed, the point is the ruse tipped the balance in the state Senate.

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    This is ignoring the fact that in some states people have been charged for this very crime. I have linked an example of charges being filed in Florida for this crime and siphoning votes is part of the charges.
    – Joe W
    Oct 19, 2021 at 18:55
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    I am not sure there is much of a difference between running a quite campaign for winning votes from the other party and running a fake campaign for winning votes from the other party.
    – Joe W
    Oct 19, 2021 at 19:53
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    This example only proves that it happens not whether it's legal or not. Oct 19, 2021 at 21:28
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    @thieupepijn This was widely known in the lead up to the election. If the DFL had had a reason to sue, I'm sure they would have taken it. Oct 19, 2021 at 21:44
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    @JoeW The case you cited was not someone charged for "this very crime". Your reasoning in saying so is circular and reduces to "this is a crime because someone was charged with this crime". But that's false. The truth is that this is not a crime but that someone who was doing it was charged with some crimes. Your argument is like showing it's illegal to buy a Lamborghini by citing someone who was arrested for stealing money they used to buy a Lamborghini. Oct 20, 2021 at 21:29
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Yes it is legal.

It is nobody's business to second-guess a candidate's motives. As I hinted in my comment, people lie all the time, politicians included.

One of the reasons that lying is not legally forbidden is, obviously, that it runs against the notion of freedom: It is not the American government's business to make everyone a "good person". This freedom, like any other, finds its limits where it seriously harms other people, especially economically. Lies in business or monetary matters are called fraud, or tax evasion.

Another reason is that the closer you look, the fuzzier "truth" becomes. The truth of product properties or undisclosed monetary transactions is fairly objective. But still the courts are full of cases where the assessment of transactions under tax law is disputed.

In more opinion-based realms "truth" or "lie" are still harder to tell apart. The trouble social media companies have to properly classify problematic posts is an example. On Snopes, most claims are "mostly" or "somewhat" true or false, even for pretty factual statements.

But even though "fake campaigns" as such are not illegal their makeup makes them prone to run afoul of laws governing elections. One of the peculiarities of fake campaigns is that they lack the resources of a good-faith campaign, like a supporting base of volunteers and donors. Absent those, the money must come from somebody else, namely the true sponsor. Since the ties to the sponsor should stay hidden and there aren't so many of them, there is a danger of exceeding donation limits and violating other election and campaign rules. That's where the fake candidate Alex Rodriguez and his GOP sponsor Frank Artiles where caught which are mentioned in Joe's answer. The Florida statute violations in this case are listed in this answer to a question I asked over at Law. The mere candidacy is not one of them.

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    @Jesper thanks -- I think it should be discouraged to invert the question logic after answers have been posted! Nov 12, 2021 at 11:05
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No it is illegal, at least in some states, I can't say if this is true for all states as they all have their own election laws. However I think it is likely that it is illegal everywhere because of the potential impact it has.

https://apnews.com/article/miami-senate-elections-florida-elections-e8b70ce3270bd170e37a71ca80b5aaae

A former Florida state Republican senator was charged Thursday with three criminal counts involving a sham candidate intended to siphon votes away from a Democratic incumbent.

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    When push comes to shove the devil is in the details. There is a constitutional right to attempt to advance third-party candidates and party platforms, and mere knowledge that this undermines others who believe the same thing doesn't make it criminal. I suspect that the criminal counts involve diversion of money raised for the GOP or false statements of fact made about who was supporting them in election law disclosures.
    – ohwilleke
    Oct 19, 2021 at 17:52
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    Alex Rodríguez pleaded "guilty in Miami-Dade County to accepting illegal campaign donations and lying on campaign documents. . . . Prosecutors charged Artiles in March with felony campaign fraud charges, saying he secretly gave more than $44,000 to Rodriguez so that he could run in the 2020 election to confuse voters and siphon ballots from then-Democratic incumbent, Sen. Jose Javier Rodríguez. The funds allegedly came from a dark money source. Artiles has pleaded not guilty." apnews.com/article/florida-5343b101e96d5c7f42d1ee54da7cc0ce
    – ohwilleke
    Oct 19, 2021 at 17:55
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    Agreed with @Esther. This answer is phrased a bit imprecisely, but the core fact it gives is an important one not mentioned in the current top answer: There certainly are laws designed to discourage/hinder sham campaigns, by requiring transparency about funding and other aspects of campaign organisation. People may often find loopholes (as the other answer shows), and a “sham campaign” is much too fuzzy a notion for laws to ever completely prohibit them — but some specific approaches to sham campaigning are certainly illegal. Oct 20, 2021 at 11:54
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    No one is being criminally charged for running a sham candidate here, they're being charged for election crimes that would still be crimes even if the candidate were perfectly legitimate. You can certainly run a candidate intended to siphon votes, but there are limits to how much you can "cover up" the fact that it's a sham by hiding funding sources, etc. Oct 20, 2021 at 13:19
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    @JoeW The charges stem from the fact that the sham candidate was secretly paid to run in violation of campaign finance laws, and from the fact that the sham candidate lied about his residence on election forms. These violations would have been illegal for any candidate, sham or not - the charges aren't related to the intent of the campaign, but rather how it was run. Had he not accepted illegal contributions or lied on his forms, Rodriguez could have run a legal vote-siphoning campaign. Oct 20, 2021 at 14:11

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