In the US, bribing federal or state legislators to vote the way you want them to is illegal. But donating (or not donating) to their election campaigns is legal, as is telling them what you want them to do.

Is there any legal way to adopt a policy of political donations designed to encourage a legislature as a whole to make "correct" decisions? Or would any such scheme necessarily be bribery if it were effective?

For example, say I adopt a policy of downloading all the legislators' votes, determining what I think was the correct vote on each item, and then splitting my pot of political donations in proportion to the number of correct votes. This policy clearly dispenses money to politicians in exchange for votes, so it's bribery, right? But it's also merely allocating my money towards legislators who have demonstrated that they agree with me and away from legislators who don't. So would this be allowed or not? Why would this be bribery but donating to, say, all the legislators who voted such that they weren't thrown out of the Republican party not be bribery?

Would the calculus change if I took steps to make sure that everyone knows that this is how I allocate my donations, and what my political preferences are? Or if I started publishing some or all of what the "correct" votes on particular bills would be in advance? Would it somehow be legal to allocate donations like this but only if I keep it a secret from the legislators to prevent a quid pro quo relationship?

Why, legally, would a mathematical system of donating to legislators who do the things I want qualify as bribery, while a seemingly equivalent fuzzier system of telling legislators what to do, liking the ones who listen to me, and then donating to the legislators I like, would not be? In either case the legislators can predict my behavior and anticipate that they will receive donations only if they carry out my political preferences.

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    I’m voting to close this question because it belongs on politics.stackexchange.com May 5, 2023 at 15:22
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    Re: "This policy clearly dispenses money to politicians in exchange for votes, so it's bribery, right?" No, the votes were cast before there was any indication etc that payments would follow at some time in the future. That's neither an exchange nor bribery, that's just making a donation (albeit in complicated way). Maybe asking what are the elements of bribery could be a better question.
    – user35069
    May 5, 2023 at 16:25

1 Answer 1


See McCormick v. United States, 500 U.S. 257 (1991). A political contribution is only vulnerable as a bribe under the Hobbs Act if the payments are made "in return for an explicit promise or undertaking by the official to perform or not perform an official act."

  • A key part of the case was that McCormick did not report the funds either as income (and taxed), nor as campaign contributions. They were "off-the-book". Had the funds been properly accounted for in anyway, they very likely would've been legal, regardless of how he voted.
    – abelenky
    May 5, 2023 at 16:13

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