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Lucky drivers pulling up to a packed Chevron gas station south of Atlanta last Saturday finally saw a little relief at the pump, in the form of a $25 gas voucher straight from the goddaughter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s niece.
The catch: They had to sit through a pitch for her political candidate of choice—college football hero, Olympic bobsledder, Russian roulette aficionado, and now aspiring Republican senator Herschel Walker.
But the goddaughter—Trump-pardoned felon, QAnon booster, and reality TV tell-all author Angela Stanton-King—wasn’t out there on her own. And they weren’t her vouchers. She was the face of a promotion from a pro-Walker super PAC called “34N22,” which claimed to be giving away $4,000 worth of fuel in the name of unseating his opponent, Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA), the pastor who currently leads the congregation at King Jr.’s old church.
It was an unusual scene. A video Stanton-King streamed on her YouTube channel shows that some motorists seemed confused and tentative about participating, but soon came around when presented with the free fuel. But with summer gas prices spiking in a pivotal election year, these giveaways could soon become a nationwide trend—and a real-world troll.
The legal question
Giveaways like these aren’t common, precisely because of the outwardly visible impression of bribing people for votes.
On Saturday, volunteers handed out vouchers along with electioneering pamphlets bashing Warnock and soliciting support for Walker.
Casual observers and even some attorneys suspected the unusual arrangement was illegal. But experts say this kind of gas giveaway falls within election rules.
Brett Kappel, campaign finance expert at Hammon Curran, told The Daily Beast that laws against vote buying require an agreement.
This giveaway would then be legal, Kappel said, “as long as they aren’t given the gas cards in exchange for agreeing to vote for Herschel.” He observed that if this model were successful, then similar promotions “may indeed become a popular gimmick for Republicans to bash Democrats over inflation and gas prices.”
Brendan Fischer, deputy executive director at good government group Documented, echoed the legal take.
“The PAC would likely stay within the bounds of the law as long as it is giving gas vouchers to everybody, and not offering the vouchers as an inducement to vote,” Fischer told The Daily Beast.
On Saturday, a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution posted a statement from an attorney for the super PAC, defending the event as “entirely lawful and permissible.”
“The vouchers were given without condition; no recipient or prospective recipient was required to vote, to register to vote, to support or oppose any particular candidate, or to appear in advertisements,” the statement said, citing federal and state code.
Stanton-King’s video of the event shows her chatting up drivers as they come, almost all of them Black, trying to sour them on the incumbent Warnock.
“Would you consider giving Herschel Walker your vote?” she asked one man, who, after accepting the voucher offer, appeared to say he would indeed consider the request. Other drivers seemed happy to just take the voucher and ignore the pitch.
At one point, however, Stanton-King let a few sentences slip that raised the possibility of something that actually could be against the law: the super PAC coordinating with the candidate directly.
“I got with Herschel Walker team,” she explained to one man. “I said can you do something?” She added that when she brought up the gas price issue, Walker replied, “Let’s give them some free gas.”
Coordination is key
Candidates are barred from coordinating with super PACs on fundraising and spending.
But Fischer pointed out that, because candidates have a different set of rules, they probably couldn’t get away with what the super PAC was doing, anyway.
“It would likely be illegal for Walker’s campaign to hand out gas vouchers to voters, because a candidate cannot use campaign funds to cover any person’s personal expenses. But PACs are not subject to the personal use ban, so this gas voucher gimmick is not prohibited under campaign finance law,” Fischer explained.
This was the rule some campaign finance watchdogs alleged that former Democratic presidential contender Andrew Yang may have violated with his $1,000 monthly “universal basic income” sweepstakes in 2019.
But the gas gimmick was so unusually overt that it nonplussed even veteran elections workers in the state—like Aunna Dennis, executive director of Common Cause Georgia.
“I’ve never seen this before in my decades of Georgia politics,” Dennis told The Daily Beast. “And it’s specifically because of this outward perception of vote-buying.”
The Daily Beast asked spokespeople from the super PAC and the Walker campaign about the promotional event—including Stanton-King’s claim that the promo was Walker’s idea—but received no reply.
While the price of gas is beyond any politician’s control, costs hit consumers directly and regularly, and often become subconsciously coupled with a sense of economic unease more broadly. Republicans have seized on the recent hikes, tagging the increasing prices to President Joe Biden and Democrats in power, while promising a return to normal once they regain control of Congress—without explaining exactly how they’d accomplish lower prices.
This was the thinking a decade ago, when the Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity subsidized gas prices in an effort to sell voters on then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney. And while it’s still not clear who hatched the Georgia giveaway, the pro-Walker super PAC is still a day late and a dollar short.
Or, perhaps, weeks late and millions of dollars short.
Chicago businessman and perennial Democratic mayoral contender Willie Wilson beat Walker to the punch on the gas cards. Wilson has so far held four gas and grocery giveaways around the Windy City since March, some of them carrying million-dollar price tags.
The 34N22 super PAC (“34” is Walker’s old football jersey number; “N” is the word “in”; “22” is “2022”) has so far pulled in about $4.4 million from a handful of GOP megadonors, including shipping magnate and Jan. 6 bankroller Dick Uhlien and disgraced casino kingpin and alleged foreign agent of the Chinese government Steve Wynn. The group’s leadership counts a number of connected GOP insiders, and it has spent a little under $300,000 in outreach on Walker’s behalf.
For voting rights advocates in Georgia—who have spent years fighting state Republican officials’ continuous efforts to further codify voter suppression—the optics of the giveaway struck a freshly exposed nerve.
“I find it a little strange that we have a law that basically says people can’t give out food and water so that voters waiting in line can have a comfortable experience, but somehow it’s appropriate to give out gas to voters,” said Dennis, of Common Cause Georgia.
Dennis also pointed to the case of Olivia Pearson, a city commissioner and voting rights activist in Coffee County, who has been arrested multiple times for trying to help disadvantaged neighbors vote.
However, Dennis added that if the people behind the giveaway thought they could poach votes with a few gas vouchers, they weren’t giving Georgia voters enough credit.
“You really think they’re that desperate?” she said. “It’s disrespecting people’s knowledge of the system and the value that they place on their vote.”
Dennis, a mom, recounted that she had paid $62 to fill up her car earlier that day—“hoo, that’s a bit much”—and would have to fill up again by the end of the week.
“So I understand the cost, and that inflation is really high, but I understand the power of my vote as well,” she said. “There are apparently political folks here who think Georgians are that desperate and will fall for anything. But we know the value of our vote.”