Last night during the Democratic debate, presidential candidate Andrew Yang announced that he was offering $1,000 to 10 random families for a year. The idea reflects his proposal to give every American adult $1,000 a month, a concept he calls the “Freedom Dividend.”
Debate watchers quickly raised the all-important question of whether it’s legal for a presidential candidate to give money to potential voters. Yang has offered money out of his own pocket before as a way to prove his plan would make people’s lives better, but this time, the money would come from his campaign fund.
When Ed O’Keefe, a reporter from CBS News, asked Yang if he’s checked the legalities of his offer after the debate, he responded “Oh yeah, of course. We have this whole army of lawyers who signed off on it. But I want everyone to reflect for a moment that we live in a world where a billionaire can spend over $10 million buying his way onto the election stage, and everyone thinks that is totally appropriate. But then I’m literally giving money to Americans around the country to do whatever they’d like to help improve their lives, and that seems problematic.”
According to CBS News, legal experts agree that while Yang’s offer is unorthodox, it doesn’t appear to be illegal. Deborah Hellman, a law professor at the University of Virginia School of Law, who has written extensively about campaign finance law, said she doesn’t think the offer is illegal, because it doesn’t implicitly or explicitly ask for anything in return.
“I would think that Yang’s proposal is not illegal as he isn’t suggesting that he will give money to voters in exchange for their votes, either explicitly or implicitly,” Hellman said. “Why the proposal may seem problematic is that we may worry that the voters will feel grateful to Yang and vote for him for that reason.”
Hellman did note that the Supreme Court has been clear on the fact that ingratiation is not corruption.
Campaign finance expert Rick Hasen, who teaches campaign finance at the University of California’s Irvine School of Law, also tweeted Thursday night that Yang’s tactic doesn’t appear to violate campaign finance laws, saying: “I don’t see a legal problem so long as it is not tied to voting or registering. I don’t see it as personal use for the candidate. It is a form of campaign advertising.”
And Hasen may be right. Yang’s approach appears to be working for someone who was virtually unknown before running for president. Yang spoke for the least amount of time on stage Thursday night but was the top trending candidate last night on Twitter during the debate.