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: 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.

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

House Releases “By the People” Legislative Package

House Democratic leaders unveiled a package of democracy reform legislation as part of the “Stronger America” agenda. Titled “By the People,” the package includes proposals to overturn Citizens United and related cases through a Constitutional amendment, create a small donor empowerment program, disclose secret political spending, remove barriers to voting, and more. 

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Democracy

Secret Money’s Big Bang | Olivia Lutwak

The explosion of political spending by groups that don’t disclose their donors

> Keep Reading
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.

> Keep Reading
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.

> Keep Reading

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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.

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

Vermont becomes fourth state to pass automatic voter registration

Thursday morning, Governor Peter Shumlin signed automatic voter registration (AVR) legislation into law making Vermont the fourth state to pass such legislation.

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

Big Money Continues to Sweep Congressional Primaries in MD, PA

On Tuesday, candidates in Maryland and Pennsylvania competed in some of the most expensive congressional primaries yet this election cycle.

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

Thousands Demonstrate for Democracy Reforms April 16-18

On Saturday, thousands of protesters arrived in Washington, D.C., for Democracy Awakening, a three-day mobilization featuring demonstrations, teach-ins, and congressional advocacy. 

> Keep Reading

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Report | U.S. PIRG Education Fund | Democracy

The Lobbyist's Last Laugh

Despite giving almost a quarter of a million dollars to candidates, Political Action Committees (PACs) and parties in the last election cycle, K Street did not mount a campaign against the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill as it went to the floor of the Senate earlier this year. The reason lies in the fine print of the bill.

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

Lone Star Election Laws

Texas lags behind most states in several key areas of campaign finance law, according to a report released today by the U.S. PIRG Education Fund and Texans for Public Justice. The report, titled Lone Star Election Laws found that Texas is one of only 14 states in the country that place absolutely no limit on what wealthy donors can give a candidate. Further, Texas does nothing to cap the massive levels of campaign spending or limit contributions from out of state donors.

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

Dirty Dollars, Dirty Air

This report documents the influence of the auto and oil industry on public policy and debates surrounding the control of pollution that causes smog, soot and global warming. It tracks the amount of campaign contributions made by the 164 largest companies in the automobile and oil industries and how those contributions influenced members of Congress on clean air issues.

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

Pushing The Limit

At least five proposals to increase limits on contributions by individuals to congressional candidates -- either as stand-alone measures or as part of a package of campaign finance measures -- have been floated by important political groups and individuals in the past year. The following paper analyzes the likely impact of these proposals on which candidates get elected and on the power of wealthy interests vs. the general public in governmental decision making.

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Blog Post | Democracy

After Super Pac Tuesday: Dominant Donors, Apathetic Voters

A new WashingtonPost-ABC News poll shows that on Super Tuesday, those going to cast their ballots in the presidential primary are not particularly enthusiastic about any of the candidates. Why? There is a fundamental problem that explains much of the disconnect between the candidates and the rank-and-file voters: the fact is, voters did not choose these candidates -- donors did.

It has become clear over the course of this primary season that a candidate's super PAC's prowess in knocking down the competition is key to staying in the race. Yet a recent U.S.PIRG/Demos study found that of all itemized contributions to super PACs, 96% came in contributions of $10,000 or more from just 1,097 donors.

> Keep Reading

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