Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang offered to give away $120,000 in campaign funds to 10 people at Thursday night’s debate, prompting questions as to the legality of the sweepstakes.
“My campaign will now give a freedom dividend of $1,000 a month for an entire year to 10 American families — someone watching this at home right now,” Yang announced during his opening statement. “If you believe that you can solve your own problems better than any politician, go to Yang2020.com and tell us how $1,000 a month will help you do just that.”
Yang has previously given so-called “freedom dividends” to three families from his own pocket since launching his campaign, The New York Times reported. But Yang’s most recent offer will be funded by his campaign.
“Normally when you give money to presidential campaigns, it goes to expensive consultants and ads,” the Yang campaign said in a statement, The Times reported. “For the first time in history, a presidential campaign is going to give money back to the people.”
Campaign finance law prohibits candidates from paying people in return for their votes and from using their campaign funds to pay for non-campaign related expenses, The Times noted.
Yang’s campaign told The Times that it was confident the arrangement operates within the bounds of campaign finance laws, noting that that the sweepstakes is designed to educate the public about the Democrat’s signature policy and wouldn’t exist in the absence of his campaign for president. (RELATED: 2020 Candidates Laugh As Andrew Yang Announces $12,000 Givaways During Debate)
Yang’s campaign said it “consulted with [its] counsel, and the Freedom Dividends are fully compliant with all [Federal Election Commission] regulations,” CNBC reported.
Campaign-funded sweepstakes aren’t uncommon. For example, former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign sent an email to supporters in August offering to give two free roundtrip tickets and hotel fare to attend Tuesday night’s debate. The offer had an approximate retail value of $1,500, the email noted.
But the unprecedented nature of Yang’s offer to give away campaign cash is likely to invite scrutiny, experts told The Times.
“Andrew Yang’s use of campaign funds to give ‘freedom dividends’ to supporters would push the boundaries of, and perhaps break, campaign finance law,” said a vice president of the government accountability watchdog Common Cause, Paul Seamus Ryan. “This unprecedented use of campaign funds would give rise to a bunch of novel legal questions.”
Adam Noti, a former associate general counsel of the Federal Election Commission (FEC), added: “Campaign donors give their hard-earned money to fund campaign activities, and the law makes clear that paying personal expenses is not a campaign activity … When donors give, they have a reasonable expectation that their money will be used on a campaign and not on somebody’s car payment.”
But former FEC Chairman Bradley Smith told the Daily Caller News Foundation that he doesn’t think Yang’s giveaway violates campaign finance law.
“If this were going to family or friends or business partners, one might make a case for personal use violation, but it’s going to total strangers,” Smith said. “Where is any non- campaign benefit for Yang? So this is pretty weak as a campaign finance (personal use) violation.”
“And It strikes me as an academic issue, especially given that Yang isn’t going to be the nominee,” he added.
Yang brushed aside questions surrounding the legality of his campaign’s sweepstakes Thursday evening, tweeting: “Sometimes you have to do something unprecedented to be presidential.”
Sometimes you need to do something unprecedented to be presidential. Glad to have your support, @alexisohanian! #DemDebate pic.twitter.com/EP2z8QwfOn
— Andrew Yang (@AndrewYang) September 13, 2019
This article has been updated to include comments from former FEC Chairman Bradley Smith.
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