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

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

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

Government by the People Act Introduced by Rep. John Sarbanes

Building on state, local victories, bill offers national democracy reforms.

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

On Day One, No Lobbying Ban from Trump Administration

Promise to enact five-year lobbying ban for top officials so far unfulfilled

> Keep Reading

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News Release | U.S. PIRG | Democracy

Government by the People Act Introduced by Rep. John Sarbanes

Building on state, local victories, bill offers national democracy reforms.

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

On Day One, No Lobbying Ban from Trump Administration

Promise to enact five-year lobbying ban for top officials so far unfulfilled

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

On 7th Anniversary of Citizens United, State-Level Reforms Advance

From California to Maryland, states rethink campaign finance

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

Following Backlash, Lawmakers Withdraw Ethics Rollback

On Tuesday, House lawmakers scrapped plans to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics

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

Measure to Gut Independent Ethics Office Advances in House

New rules announced that would strip the non-partisan Office of Congressional Ethics of its ability to investigate anonymous reports of wrongdoing by Members of Congress.

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Report | U.S. PIRG and Demos | Democracy

The Money Chase

Five years after the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. FEC decision, what are the roles of large donors and average voters in selecting and supporting candidates for Congress? This report examines the role of money in the 2014 congressional elections from both quantitative and qualitative perspectives, and demonstrates how matching small political contributions with limited public funds can change the campaign landscape for grassroots candidates.

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Report | U.S. PIRG Education Fund and Demos | Democracy

The Dominance of Big Money in the 2014 Congressional Elections

In 2014, large donors accounted for the vast majority of all individual federal election contributions this cycle, just as they have in previous elections. Seven of every 10 individual contribution dollars to the federal candidates, parties, PACs and Super PACs that were active in the 2013-2014 election cycle came from donors who gave $200 or more. Candidates alone got 84 percent of their individual contributions from large donors.

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

Big Money Dominates in Congressional Primaries

Our analysis of fund-raising data from 2014’s congressional primaries examines the way these dynamics are playing out state by state across the country. While some states show markedly more inequity than others, the picture painted by the data is of a primary money race where large donors carry more weight than ordinary Americans. Nationwide, just under two-thirds of all candidate contributions came from the largest donors (those giving over $1,000). And fewer than 5,500 large donors matched the primary contributions coming from at least 440,000 donors nationwide.

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

"McCutcheon" Could Add Over $1 Billion in Contributions to Next Four Elections

We project that striking the aggregate contribution limit would bring more than $1 billion in additional campaign contributions from elite donors through the 2020 election cycle.

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

Elections Confidential

“Elections Confidential” describes how secret donors poured hundreds of millions into the 2012 election through social-welfare groups that are really political vehicles and via shell corporations formed as conduits to hide a funder’s identity. The first post-Citizens United presidential election cycle was bought and paid for by a handful of wealthy donors, but the corrosive influence of money in politics was amplified by the fact that we don’t know who – or what – actually provided much of the funding.

> Keep Reading

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Blog Post | Democracy

Losing the Voting Rights Act: A Timeline | Sarah Friedman

A historic piece of legislation, the Voting Rights Act has protected fair access to the polls since 1965. But recent changes have gutted critical protections offered by the VRA. Here's what you need to know.

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Blog Post | Democracy

The Senate just introduced major election reforms, but will they be enough? | Olivia Lutwak

The money in politics legislation introduced today in the Senate is a major step in the right direction -- but will it be enough to put everyday Americans in control of our elections?

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Blog Post | Democracy

What to watch this primary day | Sarah Friedman

Today, 166 congressional primary nominations will be up for grabs -- more than any other single day this year. Big money could play a deciding role.

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Blog Post | Democracy

Shell companies are hijacking our democracy | Jeremy Flood

Anonymous shell companies are funnelling "dark money" into Super PACs at an alarming rate. The public has a right to know who is financing our elections.  

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Blog Post | Democracy

One graphic explains automatic voter registration | Sarah Friedman

States across the country are taking action to update their elections with automatic voter registration.

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