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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.
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.
Photos by Johnathan Comer, Flickr User: Joe Shlabotnik - Creative Commons, and Stefan Klapko Photography.
In a new analysis of 2020 presidential candidates’ fundraising totals, U.S. PIRG found that small donations -- contributions of less than $200 -- are the single largest source of cash received so far in this election season. Small donor totals out-paced large donations, PACs, party committees, transfers and self-funding, according to the study of third quarter filings by candidates to the Federal Election Commission.
U.S. PIRG analyzed the campaign finance reports from 2020 candidates. We found that small donations, and the people who provide them, have a significant voice in the presidential race.
Small donors finally are gaining a meaningful voice in our presidential primaries. Political and cultural developments mean that it is NOT always more expedient to rely on big money to fund a presidential campaign. While it is still early in the 2020 campaign, this is a trend worth noting and, for now, celebrating.
Today, in Rucho vs. Common Cause the Supreme Court decided not to rule on the issue of partisan gerrymandering. While the decision is deeply disappointing, it serves as a reminder that the problems of our democracy must be solved with the tools of our democracy.
This morning, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a package of democracy reforms titled “For the People,” or House Resolution 1 (H.R.1). The package included proposals to make it easier to vote and participate in our democracy, disclose secret political spending, reform redistricting practices and more. Most importantly, in creating a small donor empowerment system for federal elections, it would help combat the overwhelming influence of big money in point politics.
Democracy | U.S. PIRG
For years, it has been impossible to run for office without relying heavily on large dollar donations. While big money still has disproportionate influence, a combination of technological and cultural changes have made it possible for candidates for president to run for office while relying primarily on small-donor money.
Tools & Resources
Author: Professor John C. Coates IV, Harvard Law School
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