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

Report | U.S. PIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Guide to Convention Funding: Democratic National Convention

The Guide to Convention Funding: Democratic National Convention gives a snapshot of the sources of convention funding, what contribution limits and laws apply to convention fundraising, and the impact of large private contributors

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

Convention Funding Guide Tracks Money, Donors, Fundraising Rules

A snapshot of the sources of convention funding, what contribution limits and laws apply to convention fundraising, and the impact of large private contributors.

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

Guide to Convention Funding: Cleveland GOP Convention

On July 18-21, the Republican Party will hold its 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, concluding the party’s presidential primary, and finalizing the Republican party platform. This report examines the money behind the convention, where it comes from, how convention fundraising has changed over time, and funding in this year’s Republican primary.

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

Big money maintains hold on congressional primaries in CA, IA, MT, NJ, NM, NC, SD

86% higher fundraising candidates win congressional primaries in 2016 elections

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

ADVISORY: Congressional Money Report to Highlight June 7 Primaries

On Wednesday, June 8, U.S. PIRG Education Fund will release an 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 California, Iowa, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina and South Dakota, showing how often better-funded congressional candidates win their races.

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

In ID, KY, OR, Big Money Continues to Win Congressional Primaries

83% higher fundraising candidates win congressional primaries in 2016 elections

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

ADVISORY: Congressional Money Report to Highlight KY, ID, OR Races

On Wednesday, May 18, U.S. PIRG Education Fund will release an update to its report on the success of big-money candidates in congressional primaries.

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Report | U.S. PIRG Education Fund | Democracy

The Role of Money in the 2002 Congressional Elections

This report provides a summary of the role of money in the 2002 congressional elections. While most analysts have focused on soft money in recent years, our findings indicate that hard money plays a more critical role in the political process.

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Report | U.S. PIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Look Who's Not Coming to Washington 2002

Large contributions made by a small fraction of Americans unduly influence who can run for office and who wins elections in the United States. Without personal wealth or access to networks of wealthy contributors, many qualified and credible candidates are locked out of contention for federal office— often before voters have the opportunity to register their preferences.

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Report | U.S. PIRG Education Fund | Democracy

The Best Elections Money Can Buy

One of American democracy’s most pressing problems is that large contributions—which only a fraction of the American public can afford to make—unduly influence who can run for office and who wins elections in the United States. In 2000, 94 percent of the candidates who raised the most money won their general election contests.1 In the 2002 congressional primaries, 90 percent of the biggest fundraisers emerged victorious.

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Report | U.S. PIRG Education Fund | Democracy

The Wealth Primary 2002

Our analysis of Federal Election Commission (FEC) campaign finance data for the 2002 election cycle indicates that money played a key role in determining election outcomes and that the majority of campaign contributions came from a small number of large donors (many of whom reside out-of-state).

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Report | U.S. PIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Contribution Limits And Competitiveness

For years, academics, political theorists, and campaign finance reformers have debated the causal relationship between campaign contribution limits and the outcome of elections. Some argue that limiting campaign contributions amounts to "incumbent protection;" others contend that limits make challengers more competitive. This study is the first of its kind to comprehensively examine the states with contribution limits and empirically measure changes in competitiveness.

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Blog Post | Democracy

Youth vote surges in election | Ed Mierzwinski

In case you missed it, the Student PIRG New Voters Campaign has a release explaining that "the youth share of the electorate increased to 19 percent in 2012 over 18 percent in 2008." The PIRGs helped register over 100,000 new voters in this cycle.

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Blog Post | Democracy

Why Target is Still a Target

Two years ago, when Target’s CEO Gregg Steinhafel used corporate general treasury funds to support a group backing a candidate known for his outspoken anti-LGBT positions, it was more than a blemish on the reputation of a corporation that brands itself as progressive. That irresponsible contribution was a violation of both shareholder and public trust and, not surprisingly, it resulted in scandal and boycotts that threatened the assets of shareholders who never authorized the use of their money for political spending

Target learned first-hand what it should have already known: consumers and shareholders do not want corporations to muddy up our democracy by interfering with our elections, yet it has not yet adopted a policy against this spending. Today, at Target’s annual shareholder meeting in Chicago, shareholders will take a vote on a resolution to refrain from political spending to once again remind Target that corporate electioneering is bad for shareholders and is bad for democracy.

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Blog Post | Democracy

Who Owns Big Oil? We Do!

The American Petroleum Institute has a new public image campaign: http://whoownsbigoil.org. The purpose of this website, presumably, is to convince us that if we raise taxes on hugely profitable corporations we will only be hurting ourselves. Why? Because we are all shareholders of those corporations and when they are taxed we suffer.

While I am skeptical of API’s conclusions, it’s right to say we own the oil companies. In fact, shareholders across the country are demanding accountability and disclosure from the corporations that they rightfully own and the effort could be the key to slowing the flow of corporate money in the 2012 election.

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Blog Post | Democracy

Disempowered Bankers Start Super PAC, Reveal Plans for World Domination

While I am highly skeptical of the sentiment that "Congress is not afraid of bankers", given that banking lobbyists outnumber banking reform advocates 25-1 and that the Chairman of the Senate Financial Services Subcommittee seems to believe that "the banks own the place," the most ridiculous thing about members of the American Bankers Association's announcement of the industry's new Super PAC may be their willingness to reveal its strategy for skirting the non-coordination rules. This speaks volumes about how the industry thinks about its involvement in politics.

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Blog Post | Democracy

Making Super PACs Illegal

Polling shows that almost 7 out of 10 voters believe that super PACs, the independent expenditure only committees created in the wake of the Supreme Court’s disastrous Citizens United decision, should be illegal. Unfortunately, due to the Court’s backwards interpretation of the first amendment, we cannot legislate away super PACs today. However, there are some very important steps that every level of government – from your city council to the White House - should take right now to mitigate the impact of super PACs before the 2012 election.

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