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

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
News Release | U.S. PIRG | Democracy

Shutdown Nears, Budget Bill Fails on Secret Money, Flint Concerns

On Tuesday, the Senate failed to pass a short-term budget bill to keep the government running due to opposition over a secret-money rider and a lack of federal funding to address the Flint water crisis. The proposed secret-money rider would prohibit the SEC from strengthening corporate disclosure laws by requiring transparency of secret political spending.

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

Holt fails to deliver on debate questions

Thousands of viewers demand money in politics coverage, Holt fails to deliver.

> Keep Reading
News Release | Democracy

Broad Coalition Urges Sen. McConnell to Drop Secret-Money Rider

On Monday, 37 organizations signed an open letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, urging McConnell to reject any poison pill language in budget legislation that would prohibit the Securities and Exchange Commission from strengthening corporate disclosure laws by requiring transparency of secret political spending. A proposed secret-money rider is a sticking point in Senate budget negotiations, as lawmakers debate a continuing resolution which must pass by the end of September to keep the government open. 

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Democracy

Here's Where Your Congressional Candidates Get Their Funding

When we hear about the influence of money in politics, we often hear about it at the presidential level. Clinton accepted a donation from Y, or Trump’s top contributor said X. And there’s good reason for that: mega-donors are in the driver’s seat when it comes to presidential fundraising. But when it comes to money in politics, that’s not the whole picture. It’s not even close. 

> Keep Reading

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News Release | U.S. PIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Better-Funded Candidates Sweep Congressional Primaries

On Tuesday, this year’s congressional primaries came to a close, following over 340 competitive races in states across the country. According to analysis by U.S. PIRG Education Fund, candidates who outraised their opponents swept the vast majority of primaries, winning their election 83 percent of the time.

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

Congressional Money Report to Highlight Impact of Big Money in Primaries

On Wednesday, September 14, U.S. PIRG Education Fund will release a final update to its report on the success of big-money candidates in congressional primaries. The update will amend the report to include the results of House and Senate races in all states, showing how often better-funded congressional candidates win their races. 

> Keep Reading
News Release | U.S. PIRG & Public Citizen | Democracy

Fort Myer Construction and Associates Gave More Than $130,000 to D.C. Council in Past Five Years

Top executives and their families at Fort Myer Construction – the D.C.-based construction company involved in a contracting controversy with Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office – have donated at least $130,000 to 18 candidates since 2011. They used contributions from 11 sources, according to research by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG) and Public Citizen. The case highlights the need for public financing of elections.

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

California legislature opens door to citizen-funded elections

 

On Wednesday, the California State Senate passed SB 1107, a bill to lift California’s ban on small donor empowerment programs, following passage in the State Assembly. Small donor empowerment programs provide limited public matching funds for small contributions to qualifying lawmakers. SB 1107 received bipartisan support from two-thirds of state legislators in the Senate and Assembly and now heads to California Governor Jerry Brown for consideration.

> Keep Reading

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Report | U.S. PIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Funding Clean Elections

The spiraling cost of campaigns, high-profile scandals and voter distrust of Congress have fueled an effort for fundamental reform of the way we fund congressional campaigns. As a result, many federal decision-makers have been working on proposals to create a Clean Elections model for publicly financing congressional campaigns. As a part of the effort to build support both within the Democratic caucus and across party lines, it is important to know how much the program will cost and options to pay for that cost.

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

Breaking Free With Fair Elections

Fair Elections – systems with full public financing of elections – would help improve the openness, honesty, and accountability of government. They would also free public officials to respond to the interests of voters without worrying about hurting their ability to raise money from deep-pocketed donors. If we want to protect the environment, design a better health care system or improve our energy policy, we need a political system that encourages lawmakers to listen more to voters than to oil and gas companies, pharmaceutical giants and other industries.

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

Honest Enforcement

Some argue that last year’s scandals, which lead to the conviction of two congressmen and several top aides, are evidence that ethics enforcement in Congress works. The actual facts leading up to the convictions, however, are more an indictment of the current process than a testament to its success.

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

The Wealth Primary

Our analysis of Federal Election Commission (FEC) campaign finance data for the 2006 primary elections shows that money played a key role in determining election outcomes and that most campaign contributions came from a small number of large donors.

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

Campaign Contribution Limits: No Harm To Challengers

A new study by political scientists Kihong Eom and Donald A. Gross analyzes contribution data for 57 gubernatorial election cycles from 1990 to 2000 in 41 states that have varying regulations on contributions to political candidates. The central finding is that there is no support for the notion that campaign contribution limits hurt challengers. If anything, contribution limits can work to reduce the financial bias that traditionally works in favor of incumbents.

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Blog Post | Democracy

The End of Net Neutrality As We Know It? | Ed Mierzwinski

On Thursday, 5/15 the FCC meets to propose new rules "to protect and promote the open Internet," after a court threw out parts of its current rules. The problem, however, is that some of the FCC Chairman's preliminary comments suggest he's for killing the core feature of the open Internet, Net Neutrality, in order to save it.

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Democracy

The People Strike Back

On October 8, as the Supreme Court debated lifting the aggregate limit on campaign contributions, a growing democracy movement was out in full force in front of the Court and in cities across the country.

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Democracy

In the Aftermath of VRA Ruling, a Wave of Voter Suppression Laws

It has been barely a month since the Supreme Court issued its controversial Voting Rights Act (VRA) ruling — yet already, in states across the country, laws are being implemented and proposed that are designed to severely limit voting access, and that will ultimately harm American democracy.

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Democracy

New Wisconsin Bill Would Let the People Decide On Citizens United

Two state legislators have introduced legislation that, when passed, will bring a question to the 2014 ballot on overturning Citizens United and eliminating big money in elections.

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Democracy

Wisconsin Bill Would Double Campaign Contribution Limits, Increase Big Money in Politics

Wisconsin is the latest state to consider raising contribution limits in a trend that ignores the real problems of our current campaign finance system.

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