Two Republican senators in Georgia, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, have been forced into runoffs against their Democratic challengers. The fate of the Senate depends on these two races, and with the Peach State leaning blue for the presidential election for the first time since 1992, some Democrats have begun to think of it as a more winnable battleground. There’s about to be an astonishing amount of money dropped on the state. Which brings us to one proposal circulating on social media: Left-leaning billionaires should pay a bunch of Democrats to move into the state. But would such a scheme be legal?
Not strictly. First, paying for votes is illegal, and it’s a felony under Georgia law. If a court found that a billionaire—oh, just for fun, let’s say Michael Bloomberg—had made his intention clear and explicitly political in paying to move people, it would likely be bad news for the former presidential candidate.
But there could be a workaround. In the simplest version, the billionaire could target a group of people—twentysomethings living in Brooklyn, for example—who are more likely to vote Democrat and offer them money to move under some other justification. There have been nonpolitical versions of this: Since 2007, millionaire Larry Blumberg offered Jewish families $50,000 to move to Dothan, Alabama, in an effort to revitalize his synagogue. Bloomberg could open a new hub for organizers in Georgia and hire a legion of staffers from out of state, and it would have the same effect but pack twice the punch.
The asterisk here is that he would have to act fast, since the deadline to register to vote before the January runoff is Dec. 7. It wouldn’t be impossible to launch such an operation in just a month, but it would be hard. There are no strict rules for Georgia residency—it really comes down to whether a judge would find someone’s assertion that Georgia is their permanent residence to be credible. And they’d have to find housing quickly, since registering requires a utility bill (or other government document) to prove residency. Even better would be applying for a driver’s license, since braving the DMV signals an intention to actually stay for a meaningful period of time. But they would still need to have proof of residency, such as a utility bill and rental contract.
Let’s assume it’s possible to persuade a group of people to relocate to a new state on short notice in the middle of a pandemic. Let’s assume it’s easy for all of them to find housing without straining local resources. Let’s also assume the billionaire is confident a judge won’t declare that these organizers don’t qualify for Georgia residency. How many people would you need to move the needle in Georgia?
Huge numbers. When Perdue was last elected in 2014, he won by around 200,000 votes. There are many factors related to turnout that make it hard to say how many extra votes Democrats really need to put Democrat Jon Ossoff over the top, but we can guess that it would be somewhere between 200,000 and half a million for a special election. (Loeffler’s race against Democrat Raphael Warnock would likely require even more.) If we take that lower number and assume the billionaire would pay each organizer $5,000 for the move plus a $50,000 salary, that amounts to $11 billion for just one month. (That’s 20 percent of Bloomberg’s fortune.) If he only offered the $5,000 to people who were more likely to vote Democrat and who already wanted to move, that would still be $1 billion.
And this wouldn’t be happening in a vacuum: There’s a high likelihood that there would be a backlash, and that any version of this scheme would motivate potential Republican voters to turn out to vote.
The thought experiment is less absurd when it comes to a sparsely populated state, such as Montana. Montana isn’t exactly a swing state, but because of its small population, the numbers are more doable: Gov. Steve Bullock trailed the Republican Sen. Steve Daines in the Senate race by about 63,000. Previous years have seen even tighter margins, but in Montana, where there’s a lot of land, it might be feasible to bring in thousands of people and make a city out of nothing. Would it be easy? No. But would it be possible with enough money? I’m not one to say what a $55 billion fortune can do.
But Andrew Therriault, a data science consultant and the former director of data science for the Democratic National Committee, had another idea for how to swing Montana: “It’s a great place to put the next Google or Amazon campus, or something like that that will draw 50,000 to 100,000 largely educated people who are often coming from places like San Francisco and New York. A large majority of those people would be voting for Democrats.”
The Explainer thanks Therriault, Atlanta attorney Bryan Sells, Northwestern University law professor Michael Kang, and Atlanta attorney Emmet Bondurant.