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

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.

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

Contracting scandal intensifies amid fresh allegations

Case highlights need for campaign finance reforms

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Democracy

Cruz, Meadows propose rollback to campaign contribution limits

On Wednesday, Senator Ted Cruz and Representative Mark Meadows introduced legislation that would eliminate campaign contribution limits, allowing wealthy donors to give unlimited funds to the campaigns of their choice. The proposal by Cruz and Meadows comes on the heels of an election in which money in politics was a top voter concern.

> Keep Reading

Pages

News Release | U.S. PIRG | Democracy

Contracting scandal intensifies amid fresh allegations

Case highlights need for campaign finance reforms

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

Fair Elections Ballot Initiatives Win in States Nationwide

Voters pass initiatives in Maryland, Washington, California, South Dakota

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

REPORT: 77% of money in senate races comes from out-of-state

A new report by U.S. PIRG Education Fund shows that 77 percent of funding in the 34 senate races happening nationwide comes from out-of-state. Released on Monday, Outside Influence: Out-of-State Money in the 2016 Senate Elections highlights the share of money that candidates, PACs, super PACs, and party committees have raised from outside the state they are spending on. In seven swing senate races highlighted in the report, a full 81 percent of election funding is coming from out-of-state.

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

ADVISORY: Out-of-State Spending Could Decide Swing Senate Races

On Monday, October 24, U.S. PIRG Education Fund will release Outside Influence: Out-of-State Money in the 2016 Senate Elections, a report examining out-of-state money funneled into the 2016 senate races. Findings highlight the share of money that candidates, PACs, super PACs, and party committees have raised from out-of-state, with a focus on money in swing elections which could decide party control of the Senate.

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

California Gov. Jerry Brown Signs Law Enabling Citizen-Funded Election Reforms

On Thursday, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed SB 1107 into law, enabling California cities, counties, and the state to enact small donor matching programs that amplify the voices of voters in local elections. Under a small donor empowerment system, candidates who voluntarily opt in and agree to turn down large contributions receive limited public matching funds for each small contribution they secure.

> Keep Reading

Pages

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

Billion-Dollar Democracy

The first presidential election since Citizens United lived up to its hype, with unprecedented outside spending from new sources making headlines.

Demos and U.S. PIRG analysis of reports from campaigns, parties, and outside spenders to the Federal Election Commission found that our big money system distorts democracy and creates clear winners and losers.

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

Distorted Democracy: Post-Election Spending Analysis

A new analysis of data through Election Day from the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and other sources by U.S. PIRG and Demos shows how big outside spenders drowned out small contributions in 2012: just 61 large donors to Super PACs giving an average of $4.7 million each matched the $285.2 million in grassroots contributions from more than 1,425,500 small donors to the major party presidential candidates. 

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

Million-Dollar Megaphones

Although each major party presidential candidate will likely break previous fundraising records, the big story of the 2012 election has been the role of Super PACs, nonprofits and outside spending generally. Demos and U.S. PIRG Education Fund analyzed Federal Election Commission (FEC) data and secondary sources on outside spending and Super PAC fundraising for the first two quarters of the 2012 election cycle.

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

Loopholes for Sale

A new report by U.S. PIRG and Citizens for Tax Justice (CTJ) found that thirty unusually aggressive tax dodging corporations have made campaign contributions to 524 (98 percent) sitting members of Congress, and disproportionately to the leadership of both parties and to key committee members. The report, Loopholes for Sale: Campaign Contributions by Corporate Tax Dodgers, examines campaign contributions made by a total of 280 profitable Fortune 500 companies in 2006, 2008, 2010 and to date in 2012.

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

Business Contributions to Super PACs

Contrary to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, for-profit businesses should not be permitted to spend treasury funds to influence elections. First, most businesses are constrained to participate only to maximize private profit, rather than out of regard for the public good. More important, this spending undermines political equality by allowing wealthy institutions to translate economic success into political power.

> Keep Reading

Pages

Blog Post | Democracy

Happy Birthday, Bob Dylan: Three Democracy Lessons We Learned from an American IconOlivia LutwakVania Canales-Canales

As we celebrate Dylan's 75th birthday, here's what the music icon taught us about democracy.

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Democracy

Panama Papers Tie Mega-Donors to Offshore Tax Loopholes | Sarah Friedman

We always knew that the big money pouring into this year's election wasn't coming from everyday Americans, but new reports reveal ties to offshore tax dodging.

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Democracy

U.S. PIRG's Top 5 Change-Makers

This week, Time Magazine came out with its annual Top 100 Most Influential People list, but what about the men and women who made a difference for regular Americans on the issues facing all of us?

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Democracy

This spring’s hottest trend in election reform

It’s not just a fad. As winter comes to a close, states across the country are making waves with the biggest new idea in election reform.

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Public Health, Consumer Protection, Democracy, Food, Transportation

State of the Union: Five Things We’ll Be Listening For | Chris MacKenzie

President Obama has hyped his final State of the Union address as a speech that will help to define his legacy. Here's how he can break new ground.

> Keep Reading

Pages

View AllRSS Feed

Join Our Call

Tell your representative to stand up for our democracy, and amplify the voices of small donors in our elections.

Support Us

Your donation supports U.S. PIRG’s work to stand up for consumers on the issues that matter, especially when powerful interests are blocking progress.

Consumer Alerts

Join our network and stay up to date on our campaigns, get important consumer updates and take action on critical issues.
Optional Member Code