Buying Campaign Contributions as a Hack

The first Republican primary debate has a popularity threshold to determine who gets to appear: 40,000 individual contributors. Now there are a lot of conventional ways a candidate can get that many contributors. Doug Burgum came up with a novel idea: buy them:

A long-shot contender at the bottom of recent polls, Mr. Burgum is offering $20 gift cards to the first 50,000 people who donate at least $1 to his campaign. And one lucky donor, as his campaign advertised on Facebook, will have the chance to win a Yeti Tundra 45 cooler that typically costs more than $300—just for donating at least $1.

It’s actually a pretty good idea. He could have spent the money on direct mail, or personalized social media ads, or television ads. Instead, he buys gift cards at maybe two-thirds of face value (sellers calculate the advertising value, the additional revenue that comes from using them to buy something more expensive, and breakage when they’re not redeemed at all), and resells them. Plus, many contributors probably give him more than $1, and he got a lot of publicity over this.

Probably the cheapest way to get the contributors he needs. A clever hack.

EDITED TO ADD (7/16): These might be “straw donors” and illegal:

The campaign’s donations-for-cash strategy could raise potential legal concerns, said Paul Ryan, a campaign finance lawyer. Voters who make donations in exchange for gift cards, he said, might be considered straw donors because part or all of their donations are being reimbursed by the campaign.

“Federal law says ‘no person shall make a contribution in the name of another person,'” Mr. Ryan said. “Here, the candidate is making a contribution to himself in the name of all these individual donors.”

Richard L. Hasen, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who specializes in election law, said that typically, campaigns ask the Federal Election Commission when engaging in new forms of donations.

The Burgum campaign’s maneuver, he said, “certainly seems novel” and “raises concerns about whether it violates the prohibition on straw donations.”

Something for the courts to figure out, if this matter ever gets that far.

Posted on July 14, 2023 at 7:09 AM18 Comments


Winter July 14, 2023 7:56 AM

Corruption always looks like a clever hack.

However, this hack advertises this candidate to everyone as corrupt to the bone.

me July 14, 2023 8:52 AM

Doug Burgum came up with a novel idea

Bruce forgot the sarcasm indicator. Things like that can probably be bought from some Russian operator in Moscow.

Bruce Schneier July 14, 2023 9:24 AM

@ Winter:

“However, this hack advertises this candidate to everyone as corrupt to the bone.”

I don’t know. In the US money-fueled political system, this feels like noise.

Winter July 14, 2023 9:36 AM


I don’t know. In the US money-fueled political system, this feels like noise.

I remember a truism saying:
Corrupt politicians are elected by corrupt voters

This is a clear demonstration of this principle.

Asuka July 14, 2023 11:17 AM

This reminds me a bit of Japan’s “hometown tax”. It was introduced because, as in most of the world, young people have been moving to the big cities, leaving the traditional fishing and farming villages short on tax revenue. So, people now have the option to donate money to their home town and receive almost the full amount as a tax credit (except for the first 2000 yen—approximately 15 US dollars—and up to about 3% of their income).

But, how does one define “home town”? Is it where one was born? Where one spent most of one’s childhood? Where one’s ancestors lived? What if one is a foreigner and wishes to give money to the home town of a Japanese spouse? The Japanese government decided to avoid the question and simply let people choose a city each year.

So, of course, the cities who needed this tax revenue started offering incentives. They started as true “thank you gifts”, mostly small amounts of local foods or crafts that people might miss after moving away and would have trouble finding in a big city. Then it evolved into a marketplace, where people could use online portals to “shop around” for the best rewards, effectively buying things at far-below-retail prices—such as a year’s supply of rice for $15. This led to a “crackdown” in 2019. Now, “Return gifts must basically be locally sourced and all costs, including shipping, must be within 50% of the donation received”—a disadvantage to cities without popular products, or with higher shipping costs.

Lauren July 14, 2023 11:54 AM

… “Gaming the System” is a very common & legitimate response to any human devised program with arbitrary “Rules”.

Very difficult for rule-makers to create comprehensive rules that cover all possible situations, especially deliberate exploitation of permissible “Loopholes” in the official rules.

nothing at all dishonest about Mr. Burgum buying contributions — it is perfectly within the stated rules.

Note also that pristine ethics are severely absent from all politicians & political parties.

Joshua Tauberer July 14, 2023 12:08 PM

It’s extremely illegal to launder campaign contributions, which normally includes reimbursing someone for a contribution they made. This looks a lot like the candidate laundering their personal funds through the campaign PAC and then through individual donors.

mark July 14, 2023 12:38 PM

I would think that this could be argued that it falls under the heading of buying votes, an illegal practice.

modem phonemes July 14, 2023 12:46 PM

Re: incentive alignment

We are indebted to the wise and the unwise.

“Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” – John Adams

“A republic, if you can keep it.” – Benjamin Franklin

Marshall July 14, 2023 1:10 PM

At least he isn’t spending bribing them with taxpayer dollars like incumbents do.

Alvy July 14, 2023 1:51 PM

In Spain you need a official permit for doing that kind of “lottery” and also pay a 20% tax of the amount of money you get as the organiser. Basically lotteries are something state-exclusive so even small ones have to pay taxes (if approved).

Steve July 14, 2023 6:16 PM

This strikes me as a potential campaign finance violation, specifically, the “straw donor” provision:

No person shall make a contribution in the name of another person or knowingly permit his name to be used to effect such a contribution, and no person shall knowingly accept a contribution made by one person in the name of another person.

See hxxps://

If I give someone money to give to a candidate in order to circumvent the maximum allowable contribution, that’s illegal and I can go to jail.

Basically, as I see it (and I am, of course, neither a lawyer nor an expert on campaign finance law), what they’re doing is paying people to contribute by laundering money through the use of gift cards and one would assume that the Federal Elections Commission and the courts would probably see it as a transparent violation.

But since the Citizens United decision in 2010 and with the current composition of the US Supreme Court, who knows?

name.withheld.for.obvious.reasons July 14, 2023 7:10 PM

There is an unholy alliance between campaign financial management, religious institutions, and the IRS. What do I mean?

Under federal tax rules, religious institutions are not required to report any information to the IRS. Not just that they are tax exempt, but they are also free from what other non-profit institutions are required to report financial information, a tax return, and are required to stay political neutral. Religious institutions are also required to be free of political influence, i.e. instructing parishioners to vote for a particular party or candidate.

So a person could give money to a church, deduct the contribution from their taxes, and the church is not required to report it.

Churches have been openly selling voters to parties and preachers and pastors have been selling their followers. And look at the influence campaigns that are being waged in the U.S. against secularism in government. They are now putting taxpayer money in their pockets, thus double dipping.

The IRS is reluctant and recalcitrant when it comes to charging and removing religious institutions tax status due to the “perception” of attacking religion…and what do religious institutions do in turn…hack back the government. Less than a dozen religious entities in the past ten years have been audit, there are no numbers for prosecutions or rescinding of tax exempt status.

I have been harping on this for more than decade.

My Probation Officer and FBI Know Who I Am July 14, 2023 8:48 PM

At least the guy is being honest and open about it. Really NOTHING that is new and absolutely nothing that it hasn’t, is, and will be done by heavyweight crooks called career-politicians. He is not misleading anyone by making empty promises or by doing those shady deals with cash stuffed envelopes under the table. At least, with this guy, you know where you stand. Argue all you want, but it’s a plus, compared to all others who resort to all kinds of illegal behavior and then go above and beyond to conceal it every which way they can. He’s no different regarding the end goal, just a slight detour from the traditional crookery, as far as “how to get there” is concerned.

Bruce Schneier July 16, 2023 3:25 PM

@ Lauren:

“…’Gaming the System’ is a very common & legitimate response to any human devised program with arbitrary ‘Rules.'”

Yes, and that’s exactly what my latest book is about. These sorts of hacks are legal. Whether or not they are ethical is another debate. But they are certainly common, and often harmful to the underlying system.

Bruce Schneier July 16, 2023 3:27 PM

@ Mark:

“I would think that this could be argued that it falls under the heading of buying votes, an illegal practice.”

He’s not buying votes, he’s buying contributors.

If this is illegal, it’s because his contributors are “straw donors.”

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