Democracy For The People

U.S. PIRG is pushing back against big money in our elections and working to institute a system of small donor incentive programs, to amplify the voices of the American people over corporations, Super PACs and the super wealthy.

The money election

One person, one vote: That’s how we’re taught elections in our democracy are supposed to work. Candidates should compete to win our votes by revealing their vision, credentials and capabilities. We, the people then get to decide who should represent us.

Except these days there's another election: Call it the money election. And in the money election, most people don’t have any say at all. Instead, a small number of super-wealthy individuals and corporations decide which candidates will raise enough money to run the kind of high-priced campaign it takes to win. This money election starts long before you and I even have a chance to cast our votes, and its consequences are felt long after. On issue after issue, politicians often favor the donors who funded their campaigns over the people they're elected to represent.

Image: Flickr User: Joe Shlabotnik - Creative Commons

Super PACs and Super Wealthy Dominate Elections

Since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010, the super wealthy and the mega donors have gained even more influence in the “money election.” 

Take the recent mid-term elections. Our report, The Money Chase, on the dominance of big money in the 2014 Congressional Elections looked at 25 competitive House races, and in those races the top two vote-getters got more than 86 percent of their contributions from large donors. Meanwhile, only two of those candidates raised less than 70 percent of their individual contributions from large donors.

This disparity was also on full display in the 2012 presidential election. Combined both candidates raised $313 million from 3.7 million small donors — donors who each gave less than $200. However, that $313 million was matched by just 32 Super PAC donors, who each gave an average of more than $9 million. Think about that: just 32 donors — a small enough number that they could all ride on a school bus together — were able match the contributions of 3.7 million ordinary Americans.

So what happens when a handful of super rich donors spend lavishly on elections? For one thing, their money often determines who wins an election. In 2012, 84 percent of House candidates who outspent their opponents in the general election won. 

But perhaps the bigger problem is what it does to the public’s trust in their democracy, and the faith we all place in our elected officials. Americans’ confidence in government is near an all-time low, in large part because many Americans believe that government responds to the wishes of the wealthiest donors — and not to the interests or needs of regular Americans. 

Taking Back Our Democracy

It’s time to reclaim our elections. That's why U.S. PIRG has launched our Democracy For The People campaign.

Our campaign seeks to overturn the Citizens United decision. We want to pass an amendment to our Constitution declaring that corporations are not people, money is not speech, and our elections are not for sale. To do so, we’re going state-by-state, city-by-city to build the support its going to take to win. We’ve already helped get 16 states and nearly 600 cities, counties and towns to formally tell Congress that the Constitution must be amended. Getting this across the finish line won’t be easy, but it’s what’s necessary to reclaim our democracy.

In the meantime, we're working to amplify the voices of ordinary people in our elections. So we're also working to create systems of incentives and matching funds for small contributions — systems that are already in place in some cities and counties.  

Amplifying The Voices Of Small Donors

We’re building support for the Government By the People Act, a bill in Congress which will help bring more small donors into our elections, and increase their impact. Here’s how:

  • Government By the People Act encourages more people to participate by giving small donors a $25 credit on their taxes.
  • The Act increases the impact of small donations by creating a fund that will match those donations at least 6-to-1 if a candidate agrees to forego large contributions.

It’s possible to enact programs like this, in fact there was a similar federal tax credit in place from 1971 to 1986.  And more recently, cities like New York have passed small donor programs and seen real results. For example, in the 2013 New York City Council races small donors were responsible for 61 percent of the participating candidates’ contributions (once matching funds were factored in), making small donors the largest source of campaign cash. Their big-money opponents got only 19 percent of their contributions from small donors.

We need more success stories like these if we are going to build momentum for change. That’s why we’re working with cities and towns across the country to establish small donor incentive programs of their own.

With your help, we can win real changes now in how elections are funded throughout America — so more candidates for more offices focus on we, the people, and not just the mega-donors and Super PACs who are undermining our democracy and the principles upon which it stands.

Issue updates

News Release | U.S. PIRG | Democracy

Chicago Board of Ethics Enforces Strong Lobbying Disclosure Laws

David Plouffe, a former campaign manager for President Obama, was fined $90,000 Thursday for failing to register as a lobbyist after reaching out to Mayor Rahm Emanuel on behalf of the ride-sharing company Uber. The fine, the largest ever imposed by the Chicago Board of Ethics, stands in stark contrast to federal lobbying disclosure laws that allow special interests to legally influence elected officials without reporting their work. Congress can follow the lead of this strong local example to pass ethics reforms that require transparency of all lobbying activity.

> Keep Reading
News Release | U.S. PIRG | Democracy

Track Rep. Price’s Unethical Investment in Real Time

Following an outcry from good government organizations over Rep. Tom Price’s suspect stock trades, U.S. PIRG has released a new online tool at InvestigatePrice.com, tracking money made by Rep. Price through unethical investments in Innate Immunotherapeutics Ltd.

> Keep Reading
News Release | U.S. PIRG | Democracy

Responding to Ethics Concerns, Good Gov. Groups Urge Delay on Price Vote

Good government groups urge Senate leadership to delay voting on Mr. Price’s nomination until the SEC has had the opportunity to fully investigate suspect stock activity.

> Keep Reading
Report | U.S. PIRG | Democracy

Good Government Leaders Call on Senate to Postpone Price Vote

Following reports of privileged and discounted stock trading by Rep. Tom Price (GA-06), good government groups joined together Tuesday urging the Senate to delay any vote on Mr. Price’s nomination for Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS).

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Democracy

Call your representative and senators every day. Here's how. | Andre Delattre

There’s a lot unfolding in Washington, D.C., right now, and you may be wondering: “What can I do to voice my concerns?”

> Keep Reading

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News Release | U.S. PIRG | Democracy

Track Rep. Price’s Unethical Investment in Real Time

Following an outcry from good government organizations over Rep. Tom Price’s suspect stock trades, U.S. PIRG has released a new online tool at InvestigatePrice.com, tracking money made by Rep. Price through unethical investments in Innate Immunotherapeutics Ltd.

> Keep Reading
News Release | U.S. PIRG | Democracy

Responding to Ethics Concerns, Good Gov. Groups Urge Delay on Price Vote

Good government groups urge Senate leadership to delay voting on Mr. Price’s nomination until the SEC has had the opportunity to fully investigate suspect stock activity.

> Keep Reading
News Release | U.S. PIRG | Democracy

Statement: Rep. Price Should Withdraw His Nomination

Conflicts of interest and discounted, privileged stock buy don’t pass muster

> Keep Reading
News Release | U.S. PIRG | Democracy

Lobbyist Registrations Hit 18-Year Low

Year-end reports filed this month show shrinking number of registered lobbyists

> Keep Reading
News Release | U.S. PIRG | Democracy

Trump Signs Lobbying Ban EO, Success Depends on Promised Reforms

President Donald Trump signs five-year lobbying ban for Executive Branch officials

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Report | U.S. PIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Empowering Small Donors in DC Elections

This report examines how a small donor matching program would have reshaped the fundraising of competitive candidates for DC Council, Mayor, and Attorney General during their most recent campaigns.

> Keep Reading
Report | U.S. PIRG | Democracy

Boosting the Impact of Small Donors, February 2016

Mega-donors and special interest groups have flooded this year’s presidential race with a record breaking sum of money. What would our elections look like if a small donor empowerment program were in place?

> Keep Reading
Report | U.S. PIRG and Money in Politics Coalition | Democracy

Our Voices Our Democracy

On the verge of the most expensive election in U.S. history—and six years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s disastrous Citizens United decision—Americans are demanding a government that is truly by the people, where every voice is heard and every vote counts.

> Keep Reading
Report | U.S. PIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Boosting the Impact of Small Donors, Q3 2015

Candidates in the 2016 presidential race could see a dramatic shift in fundraising under a small donor empowerment program, according to a new study by U.S. PIRG

> Keep Reading
Report | U.S. PIRG | Democracy

Fighting Big Money, Empowering People

Like every generation before us, Americans are coming together to preserve a democracy of the people, by the people, and for the people. American democracy is premised on the consent of the governed, and on the idea that we all deserve a say in the government decisions that affect our families. We stand united supporting commonsense protections that recognize the people as the ultimate check on the corrosive influence of money in politics, which is eroding the very foundation of self-government.

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Blog Post | Democracy

Ohio: A voter access battleground | Sarah Friedman

Ohio has a long history of back-and-forth over early voting -- the decision has been made and reversed multiple times. Last week, however, a judge came to a verdict: The famed "Golden Week" is back. We've broken it down for you here.

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Blog Post | Democracy

Five things you need to know about gray money | Sarah Friedman

Since the 2010 Citizens United ruling, we've heard about Super PACs able to spend unlimited amounts on our elections while obscuring the sources of the cash. Now, their tactics are getting even more creative.

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Blog Post | Democracy

Five Ways Big Money Changed Since our Last Race for the White House | Samantha Garzillo

Today, the influence of big money in our elections continues to grow. This year, we see more super PACs, more secret money, and a smaller handful donors able to fund a larger share of the election. But you don’t have to take our word for it, just take a look at the numbers. Here are five of the biggest changes we’ve seen over the past four years in campaign fundraising.

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Blog Post | Democracy

The Five Worst Election Disasters of 2016 | Nick Kauzlarich

As the election cycle heats up, barriers to the polls are becoming a serious problem to more and more voters across the country. Whether it’s waiting five hours in line just to cast a vote or delaying local elections due to gerrymandering, voters have been prevented from taking part in our democracy this primary season. Here are the five worst election disasters of 2016. 

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Blog Post | Democracy

Six Twitter users to follow for all things democracy

This election cycle news about money in politics, election fiascos and voting rights is breaking at the speed of, well, Twitter. If you want to stay up-to-date, we’ve got your back.

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