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Let’s Put Voters Back on the Map

By Sean Doyle
Democracy Digital Organizer

Some of the biggest contributors to candidates in our elections are corporations, which spend tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars on political contests up and down the ballot. When a corporation like Duke Energy steps into a political contest, it is doing so to elect candidates who will support their preferred policies even when that policy is not in the public’s interest (as with Duke Energy’s opposition to third party solar, for example). The influence of corporate money in our elections puts our democracy at risk, pushing regular voters to the sidelines as candidates work to court big money interests.

After one of the most expensive election years in recent history, we thought you should know which company doled out the most money to candidates in your state in 2016.


*all data is publicly available from the National Institute on Money in State Politics, accessed March 3, 2017.
† In North Dakota, John Deere & Co, American Crystal Sugar and Hess contributed equal amounts

Keep in mind this is only the tip of the iceberg. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010 made it legal for corporations to take unlimited funds directly from their treasury for political spending. Channeled through outside groups, those contributions often go undisclosed.

While we can’t get the numbers behind secret corporate money, our map analyzes direct contributions to candidates for local, state and federal offices that are disclosed. Here’s what we found out:

1. Many top donors are also top tax avoiders:

For more than half of states, the top corporate donor also uses tax loopholes to stash millions or even billions of dollars offshore and avoid paying U.S. income taxes. And that’s based on what companies choose to report — disclosure of how many subsidiaries a company has and how much money those subsidiaries are holding is voluntary. Large corporations that can afford high-priced tax attorneys and accountants get to play by a different set of rules than small businesses that are just trying to make ends meet. Multinational corporations benefit from access to the U.S. market, but leave you and me to pick up the tab for hundreds of billions of dollars in avoided federal and state taxes.

Nike, for example, reported 55 offshore tax subsidiaries with combined assets of more than $10 billion. Based on our analysis in a recent report, Nike only pays a mere 1.4 percent tax rate to foreign governments for those profits, compared to the 35 percent federal corporate tax rate in the U.S. You can bet corporations like these expect their chosen candidates to keep these loopholes open, even though these loopholes are clearly not in the public’s interest.

2. Energy companies power their special interest agenda:

Duke Energy, Marathon Oil, ConocoPhilips, FirstEnergy — the list goes on. In more than a third of states, the top corporate donor was an energy company.

Specifically with oil and gas producers, one of Congress’ first acts this year was undoing a transparency regulation that would have required energy and mining companies (like Devon Energy) to disclose payments made to foreign governments. The industry lobbied heavily against this regulation, and while they weren’t initially successful, the new Congress made killing this regulation one of its very first acts. There are similar requirements for companies in Canada and Europe, but no longer in the U.S.

3. We can do something about it.

A company like Altria (formerly known as Philip Morris) shouldn’t be influencing who Hawaii voters elect. That’s not how elections are supposed to work. Our democracy is founded on the principle of one person, one vote. Indeed, the staff and shareholders of these corporations already get a vote in elections just like the rest of us. Companies should not also be allowed to use their wealth (which they amass thanks to public policies that facilitate corporate economic activity) to intervene in elections, especially because they will push for policies favorable to their business even when that’s not in the public’s best interest. That may be good for business, but it obscures the voice of ‘we the people.’

Fortunately, some U.S. senators recognize that and have reintroduced the Democracy for All Amendment — a constitutional amendment that would overturn Citizens United, make it clear that corporations are not people, and give lawmakers an opportunity to reign in corporate political spending. While it was introduced about a month ago, as of this writing, it already has 38 cosponsors in the Senate and 92 in the House of Representatives.

The best way to make sure this amendment passes? Call your representative and your senators and tell them to cosponsor the legislation and make sure it gets a vote.

To find out more about which corporation donated the most in your state, check out the State-by-State table below.

*denotes companies included in a recent U.S. PIRG analysis of offshore tax havens: Offshore Shell Games 2016.
† In North Dakota, John Deere & Co, American Crystal Sugar and Hess contributed equal amounts

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