Andrew Yang is giving away money for donations. Is that legal?

Has dark horse candidate Andrew Yang gotten himself into some campaign finance trouble? It’s too soon to say since the FEC hasn’t weighed in, but he’s absolutely sure he’s in the right. Some observers in the political press aren’t, however. At issue is a “contest” he’s currently running on his campaign website. If you sign up now, you could be one of ten people he’s promising to give one thousand dollars per month to for one year. Here’s the catch. He’s going to pay them out of campaign contributions. (NBC News)

Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang insisted Sunday that his contest to provide 10 Americans $1,000 monthly for one year — which would come from campaign donations — is “perfectly legal” as campaign finance experts have expressed skepticism.

“Yes, we have an army of lawyers who signed off on it,” Yang, the 44-year-old businessman who has seen his upstart presidential campaign gain momentum in recent months, told CNN’s “State of the Union.” “And we’re sure that this is perfectly legal.”

Yang added that “if I gave a million dollars to a media company or consultants or hired like a small army of canvassers, no one would blink an eye.”

I love a good “Democrat gets caught breaking campaign finance laws” story as much as the next guy, but this one looks a little dubious. As NBC News does a good job of explaining, to determine whether or not Yang can do this, we need to apply the “irrespective test” to it. That comes from the FEC rule stating that campaign contributions can not be used for “personal use.” And to determine if the expenditure falls under that category, they state that payments can’t be made “to fulfill a commitment, obligation or expense of any person that would exist irrespective of the candidate’s campaign or responsibilities as a federal officeholder.”

Looked at in that light, the contest is being run from Yang’s campaign site (conveniently close to the donate button, of course). While it’s true that he will have to pay the winners every month for twelve months even if he drops out of the race, he wouldn’t have incurred the debt to them had they not been tempted to visit his campaign website and sign up. Also, he’s obviously capturing all of those email addresses for future campaign use. Everyone who signs up will be barraged with campaign literature and requests for donations. Yang is obviously trying to qualify for the debates in terms of the minimum number of individual donors.

DISCLOSURE: In the course of researching this story, I signed up for the contest just to see if I would be asked for a donation. (I figure I can opt out of the mailing list later or filter their domain.) Or at least I tried to sign up. When I clicked the submit button it switched to a cartoon of Yang jumping up and down with the text “signing you up.” As of this writing, it is still stuck there. But I receive an email saying I was entered, so I suppose it worked. There is also a statement at the bottom of the page saying no donation is required to enter and if you donate it won’t increase your chances of winning. If, by some chance, I wound up winning I’m not sure what I would do with the money. I’d probably have to ask a Salem attorney.

In any event, I think Yang has a strong case in saying that the contest is a campaign-related expense. And some of the other candidates have been doing some dodgy stuff in any event. Some of the ones who were struggling to get the minimum number of donors to qualify for the debates have been giving away expensive campaign merchandise for a dollar. Selling things at a loss is the same as giving away money, right? And they pay for all the swag with campaign donations. I’m not sure how what Yang is doing is all that different.

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