Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang plans to announce at the debate in Houston tonight that his campaign will give 10 additional families $1,000 per month for a year, according to prepared remarks provided to TIME.
But the gifts, which are meant to highlight the cornerstone campaign proposal Yang has dubbed the Freedom Dividend, may be a violation of federal election law, some experts say.
“It’s time to stop trusting politicians and start trusting ourselves – so I’m going to do something unprecedented tonight,” Yang’s prepared remarks say. “My campaign is now going to give a Freedom Dividend of $1,000 a month to 10 American families for an entire year, someone watching this at home right now.”
The gift money is meant to highlight Yang’s plan for the federal government to give people $1,000 per month month. A campaign aide said the recipients will be randomly selected.
Since New Year’s Eve, Yang has been giving monthly checks of $1,000 to a New Hampshire family month out of his own pocket. He’s since selected recipients in Iowa and Florida. Now he plans to disburse the money from campaign funds, a move experts say may violate federal election law.
“Handing out money to individuals for their own personal use would seem to be a violation of campaign-finance law,” says Erin Chlopak, director of campaign finance strategy at the Campaign Legal Center and a former FEC attorney. “It’s hard for me to envision how taking campaign funds and just handing it out to individuals would not violate the personal use prohibition.”
The Federal Election Commission prohibits the use of campaign money for “personal use.” Under the “irrespective test” the FEC uses as a guide to establish what constitutes as a personal expense, campaign funds may not be used for expenses that would exist regardless of whether the campaign existed.
“The campaign would not be making [Universal Basic Income] payments irrespective of Andrew’s candidacy, and that therefore it is a legitimate campaign expenditure,” said Madalin Sammons, Yang’s press secretary, in a statement to TIME after this article published.
But campaign finance experts were skeptical.
“If it’s just given for no work done, for nothing at all, just a gift, that is inappropriate,” says Ann Ravel, a Democrat and former FEC commissioner. “You can’t just give cash.”
“I just cannot imagine that the statement that that’s being used as an example or a test [for how a policy would work] would be enough to make it appropriate,” says Ravel, who is running for a California state Senate seat. “Because it also has the secondary effect of looking like you’re trying to buy votes.”
The Yang campaign says their counsel reviewed the plan to give out the money and gave their blessing to move ahead with it. Anyone picked to receive the money will receive a $1,000 monthly check from the campaign and a 1099 miscellaneous form to account for it in their taxes.
“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.
“No one that we plan on giving this Freedom Dividend [to] will be asked to vote in any particular way. At the end of the day, people have their own free will,” the aide says. “I think that it says more about sort of where we’re at today when you talk about something like vote buying, that quite frankly— what does it say when a billionaire can spend six figures on TV a week and sort of force his way onto the debate stage, buy his way onto a debate stage? Wouldn’t that be considered vote buying as well?”
Yang is a former entrepreneur who has been running an outsider campaign. His presence on the debate stage attests to its early success: Only 10 presidential candidates met the Democratic National Committee’s qualifications in fundraising and polling for the September debate. Buzz for Yang largely began online and has translated into a following known as the Yang Gang. Outside of pushing for a universal basic income policy, Yang is perhaps best known for the social-media friendly moments he tends to generate. This week, it included crowd surfing and challenging Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz to a basketball game.
Giving out money has already caused problems for Yang: In May, The Des Moines Register reported that the campaign would amend finance reports to reflect spending on the gift money it was giving out at that point. The corrections came after the Iowa paper started making inquiries about the spending.