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.

Issue updates

News Release | U.S. PIRG | Democracy

U.S. PIRG Calls on States to Adopt Emergency Absentee Voting

U.S. PIRG is calling on every state to establish an emergency universal absentee voting system to eliminate the need to physically go to the polls at a time where doing so could put voters’ health at risk. This would allow all registered voters to be mailed an absentee ballot if physically visiting the polls were unsafe.

> Keep Reading
News Release | Maryland PIRG | Democracy

Who's funding elections for Governor in Maryland?

 A report released today by Maryland PIRG Foundation finds that the people and entities that donate to Maryland’s Gubernatorial campaigns are not reflective of Marylanders who are eligible to vote in these elections. The report finds that the money raised comes primarily from out of state or non individuals who contribute disproportionately large sums of money.

> Keep Reading
Report | Maryland PIRG | Democracy

Big Money in Maryland Elections

In Maryland’s gubernatorial elections, the people and companies that donate to campaigns are not reflective of the Marylanders who vote in these elections. On average, donors make large contributions that most Marylanders can’t afford, only a small percentage of the population is making contributions, and the majority of money comes from donors who aren’t eligible to vote in these elections. 

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Democracy

Confused about the caucus? There's a better way. Ranked-choice voting would be a big improvement | Joe Ready

To many, Iowa caucuses seem a bit confusing, but there is something valuable about the process of caucusing. Caucussing attempts to address a real problem in American politics: limited voter choice. When you only have one vote, you often have to decide between a candidate who most closely shares your values and the candidate you think is most likely to win.  But after watching the 2020 caucuses, there has to be a simpler, better way to assess the will of the voters. Fortunately, there is, and it’s called ranked-choice voting (RCV).

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

Small donors’ big voice in 2020 presidential race not quite as loud in most recent quarter

After a historic run of small donor contributions to presidential candidates throughout most of 2019, U.S. PIRG found big money -- contributions greater than $200-- has reclaimed its role as the top source of fundraising for candidates. This is according to a new analysis of 2020 fourth quarter Federal Election Commission data.  

> Keep Reading

Pages

News Release | U.S. PIRG | Democracy

U.S. PIRG Calls on States to Adopt Emergency Absentee Voting

U.S. PIRG is calling on every state to establish an emergency universal absentee voting system to eliminate the need to physically go to the polls at a time where doing so could put voters’ health at risk. This would allow all registered voters to be mailed an absentee ballot if physically visiting the polls were unsafe.

> Keep Reading
News Release | Maryland PIRG | Democracy

Who's funding elections for Governor in Maryland?

 A report released today by Maryland PIRG Foundation finds that the people and entities that donate to Maryland’s Gubernatorial campaigns are not reflective of Marylanders who are eligible to vote in these elections. The report finds that the money raised comes primarily from out of state or non individuals who contribute disproportionately large sums of money.

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

U.S. PIRG marks the 10th anniversary of Citizens United

On the tenth anniversary of Citizens United, we have reason to be optimistic. Americans overwhelmingly support amending the constitution and progress can be made even while Citizens United  remains the law of the land. There are opportunities for real reform at every level of government. We can use the tools of our democracy to return power to the American people.

> Keep Reading

Year in review: Consumer, public health and voters’ rights advancements provided 2019 highlights at the state level

Consumer, public health and voter advocacy -- often from the national nonpartisan group U.S. PIRG and its affiliates -- moved the ball forward at the state level in 2019. 

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

New analysis: Small donors have a big voice in 2020 presidential race

 

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. 

> Keep Reading

Pages

Result | Democracy

With Unanimous Bipartisan Vote, Automatic Voter Registration Bill Passes Massachusetts Senate

With a unanimous, bipartisan vote of 38-0, the Massachusetts Senate today passed Automatic Voter Registration. The AVR legislation would establish a system for eligible citizens to automatically register to vote when they interact with a state agency like the Registry of Motor Vehicles or MassHealth. Approximately 680,000 eligible Massachusetts voters are currently not registered to vote. 

> Keep Reading
Result | Democracy

Delivering one million petitions to President Obama on dark money

U.S. PIRG joined a broad coalition to deliver one million petitions from Americans, including U.S. PIRG members and supporters, calling on President Obama to shine a light on dark money, or secret political spending.

> Keep Reading
Result | Democracy

Giving more Americans a greater voice in our elections

In our democracy, the size of your wallet shouldn’t determine the volume of your voice. In 2015, we helped win reforms in Maine and Seattle to ensure that more Americans have a greater say in our elections. Seattle’s Initiative-122 empowers small donors with “democracy vouchers” that can be donated to local candidates and lowers the cap on contributions. In Maine, the state’s Clean Elections Act was improved by strengthening campaign finance disclosure laws and offering qualifying candidates increased public funding.

> Keep Reading
Report | Maryland PIRG | Democracy

Big Money in Maryland Elections

In Maryland’s gubernatorial elections, the people and companies that donate to campaigns are not reflective of the Marylanders who vote in these elections. On average, donors make large contributions that most Marylanders can’t afford, only a small percentage of the population is making contributions, and the majority of money comes from donors who aren’t eligible to vote in these elections. 

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

Small donors’ big voice in 2020 presidential race not quite as loud in most recent quarter

After a historic run of small donor contributions to presidential candidates throughout most of 2019, U.S. PIRG found big money -- contributions greater than $200-- has reclaimed its role as the top source of fundraising for candidates. This is according to a new analysis of 2020 fourth quarter Federal Election Commission data.  

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

Small donors driving 2020 presidential race

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.

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

Good Government Leaders Call on Senate to Postpone Price Vote

Following reports of privileged and discounted stock trading by Rep. Tom Price (GA-06), good government groups joined together Tuesday urging the Senate to delay any vote on Mr. Price’s nomination for Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS).

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

Outside Influence: Out-of-state money in the 2016 senate elections

Control of the United States Senate is at stake in the 2016 elections. Out of 34 senate races nationally, the outcome could be decided by just several swing states and a few key constituencies. But there is another deciding factor in this year’s race for the senate: money.

> Keep Reading

Pages

Blog Post | Democracy

Confused about the caucus? There's a better way. Ranked-choice voting would be a big improvement | Joe Ready

To many, Iowa caucuses seem a bit confusing, but there is something valuable about the process of caucusing. Caucussing attempts to address a real problem in American politics: limited voter choice. When you only have one vote, you often have to decide between a candidate who most closely shares your values and the candidate you think is most likely to win.  But after watching the 2020 caucuses, there has to be a simpler, better way to assess the will of the voters. Fortunately, there is, and it’s called ranked-choice voting (RCV).

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Democracy

Small dollar donors are winning! (for now) | Joe Ready

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.

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Democracy

Happy Birthday Citizens United; May It Be Your Last | Joe Ready

This month, the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision turns eight. With all that’s going on in politics, it’s easy to focus on the latest scandal or hot take. But we should take the opportunity on this anniversary to focus on what I would argue is at the root of our political quagmire.

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Democracy

It’s Time to Invest in Our Democracy | Joe Ready

We’ve seen a lot of politicians talking about “infrastructure” recently. While everyone seems to have a slightly different vision of what that catch-all term means, we have transpartisan agreement that we need to do something about our most critical infrastructure. But while our roads, bridges and sewers certainly need work, I’d argue that the infrastructure we most urgently need to invest in isn’t so concrete — it’s our democracy.

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Democracy

Equifax shareholders should shed sunlight on political spending | Joe Ready

On Thursday, the shareholders of Equifax, Inc., will vote on whether or not the corporation should disclose not just direct political contributions but also secret, dark money spending. The shareholders should not let this opportunity to know how their company is spending its money slip through their fingers.

> Keep Reading

Pages

News Release | U.S. PIRG

U.S. PIRG is calling on every state to establish an emergency universal absentee voting system to eliminate the need to physically go to the polls at a time where doing so could put voters’ health at risk. This would allow all registered voters to be mailed an absentee ballot if physically visiting the polls were unsafe.

News Release | Maryland PIRG

 A report released today by Maryland PIRG Foundation finds that the people and entities that donate to Maryland’s Gubernatorial campaigns are not reflective of Marylanders who are eligible to vote in these elections. The report finds that the money raised comes primarily from out of state or non individuals who contribute disproportionately large sums of money.

Report | Maryland PIRG

In Maryland’s gubernatorial elections, the people and companies that donate to campaigns are not reflective of the Marylanders who vote in these elections. On average, donors make large contributions that most Marylanders can’t afford, only a small percentage of the population is making contributions, and the majority of money comes from donors who aren’t eligible to vote in these elections. 

Blog Post

To many, Iowa caucuses seem a bit confusing, but there is something valuable about the process of caucusing. Caucussing attempts to address a real problem in American politics: limited voter choice. When you only have one vote, you often have to decide between a candidate who most closely shares your values and the candidate you think is most likely to win.  But after watching the 2020 caucuses, there has to be a simpler, better way to assess the will of the voters. Fortunately, there is, and it’s called ranked-choice voting (RCV).

Report | U.S. PIRG

After a historic run of small donor contributions to presidential candidates throughout most of 2019, U.S. PIRG found big money -- contributions greater than $200-- has reclaimed its role as the top source of fundraising for candidates. This is according to a new analysis of 2020 fourth quarter Federal Election Commission data.  

Democracy

PIRG urges states to adopt emergency absentee voting

The novel coronavirus outbreak is, understandably, causing many Americans to think twice about going to the polls. To protect public health and the integrity of our elections, PIRG is calling on states to make sure residents can cast absentee ballots for the 2020 elections.

 

Democracy

A somber anniversary: 10 years after the Citizens United decision

January 15th marked the 10th anniversary of the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling, widely blamed for opening the floodgates to special interest spending in our elections. U.S. legislators joined PIRG and other pro-democracy organizations to decry the ongoing harm caused by the ruling—and to highlight the growth of the pro-reform movement. 

 

Democracy | U.S. PIRG

Small donors are driving the 2020 presidential race

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.

 
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