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Doug Burgum is offering $20 to people donating $1 to his campaign. Is that legal?

Republican presidential contender Doug Burgum, who's governor of North Dakota, is offering to send people $20 gift cards if they donate as little as $1 to his campaign. He's seen here last month speaking in Ankeny, Iowa.
Scott Olson
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Republican presidential contender Doug Burgum, who's governor of North Dakota, is offering to send people $20 gift cards if they donate as little as $1 to his campaign. He's seen here last month speaking in Ankeny, Iowa.

Looking to make a splash in the crowded pool of Republican presidential contenders, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum is offering an unusual deal to donors: Anyone who sends a donation of at least $1 will get a $20 gift card in return.

The campaign's offer is good for the first 50,000 donors — and is an unconventional bid to meet the fundraising thresholds required to be onstage for next month's Republican primary debate.

In this case, it's not the dollar amount of donations that matters; it's the number of donors. To participate in the debate, candidates must have at least 40,000 donors. They also have to bring in donations from 200 or more donors in at least 20 states.

The rules create "some unusual incentives" for quickly building a wide donor base, Nick Bauroth, who chairs the political science department at North Dakota State University, told NPR.

"This offer could cost Burgum up to a million dollars, but well worth it if he gets on the main stage" at the debate, Bauroth added. Also worth remembering: Burgum is a billionaire.

Why would a campaign trade $20 gift cards for $1 donations?

Burgum's gift card strategy is a sign that his long-shot campaign sees the debate in Milwaukee as a potential make-or-break moment.

"Depending on the outcome, it will either be viewed as genius or the dumbest political move in history," Patricia Crouse, a political science and legal studies professor at the University of New Haven, told NPR.

Participating in the debate would raise Burgum's profile — something his unique offer is already accomplishing, drawing stories by FWIW, Axios, The New York Times and other national media outlets.

The online donation process itself could expand Burgum's base: When people donate, the campaign gleans their email and street addresses. Anyone who adds a phone number also agrees to receive phone calls and text messages.

As for what type of gift card is at stake, the campaign says donors "will actually get a Visa or Mastercard gift card to their mailing address."

Is this new practice ethical — or legal?

Burgum's offer raises questions about money's role in U.S. politics and the ethics and legality of sending money to potential voters.

"My immediate reaction to this scheme is a concern that it violates the federal prohibition on straw donors," Michael S. Kang, a professor at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law, told NPR.

"It's illegal to reimburse another person for their campaign contribution. Giving a donor a $20 gift card for donating seems a bit like that."

Crouse says that in her view, the practice might not be illegal, "but from my perspective, it's a bit unethical." Burgum isn't technically "buying" votes, she noted: "He is simply buying the right to compete."

The threshold for competing on the debate stage on Aug. 23 is set by the Republican National Committee, which hopes to winnow a wide field of 2024 presidential hopefuls down to a manageable group.

"Burgum is competing within the Republican primary and is just trying to game the debate qualification rules," Kang said, adding, "The scheme does test the limits of current law."

When contacted by NPR, a Federal Election Commission representative declined to comment on the legality of Burgum's offer, saying the agency "is unable to comment on specific activities, nor may we speculate on matters that may have the potential to come before the agency."

Who is Burgum?

He's a former political outsider who surprised many in 2016 when he won the race to become his home state's governor. That year, Burgum had placed third in the running for the Republican convention's endorsement — but he won the party primary just two months later.

"In the past, the party endorsement decided the matter," Bauroth said, but Burgum overturned that norm. He was reelected in 2020.

Burgum now hopes to repeat his odds-defying performance, facing off against politicians from more politically influential states, including a former president and former vice president. As before, he has shown a willingness to dip into his private wealth to fuel his campaign.

Burgum announced his candidacy for U.S. president last month via a launch event in Fargo and an opinion piece inThe Wall Street Journal. He's battling for attention against the likes of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former President Donald Trump.

"If the polls are to be believed ... he's probably hovering just under 1%," Prairie Public News Director Dave Thompson said on Monday. "And that's important," he added, because the 1% polling mark is another threshold required to be invited to the August debate.

Where did Burgum get his money?

Burgum is a billionaire thanks to a successful tech and investing career.

He was an early investor and played prominent roles in three business-software companies that went public and/or were bought by large corporations: the Great Plains accounting-software company, human resources management firm SuccessFactors and Atlassian, the company behind workflow and collaboration tools such as Jira and Confluence.

Burgum was also an executive at Microsoft after the company bought North Dakota-based Great Plains for $1.1 billion in stock in 2001.

Those successes came after Burgum, a North Dakota native, attended Stanford University's business school and mortgaged part of his family's farmland to invest in Great Plains, as he told Forbes.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.