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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.
Several voting and campaign finance reform bills that the Maryland General Assembly passed this session became law in Maryland after Gov. Larry Hogan chose not to sign them. The new laws increase access to early voting, improve on the state's vote-by-mail system, and reduce the role of large and corporate donors in races for governor. While none of the bills got Gov. Hogan’s endorsement, many of the bills earned bipartisan support in the state legislature.
The events of 2020 made a clear case for why American democracy desperately needs reform. But while an important federal election reform bill called the “For The People Act” has stalled in the U.S. Senate, a handful of states, notably Maryland, are pushing forward with building a better democracy.
The House of Representatives passed a package of democracy reform legislation (H.R. 1) on Wednesday night that features important proposals to improve the health of America’s democracy. The bill would increase participation in the voting process and disclosures on secret political spending as well as reform redistricting practices. It would also create a small donor empowerment system for federal elections, which would help combat the overwhelming influence of big money in politics.
Early Wednesday morning, President Donald Trump falsely claimed to have won the 2020 presidential election. At this point, there are still too many uncounted ballots for either candidate to claim victory. Election administrators in such battleground states as Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania have not yet finished counting the millions of absentee ballots cast this year
U.S. PIRG and its state affiliates are working to make sure that every eligible American voter has the ability to participate in democracy, even during a pandemic. We have called on states to ensure safe elections in November, with emergency expansion of vote by mail, sanitized and socially distant polling places and other measures. This weekly update highlights the work we’re doing on the COVID-19 voting front, and other important developments in the news.
Updated guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention serve to limit crowding at polling places and call for expanded voting options, including vote-by-mail ballots and opportunities for voting beyond Election Day.
You shouldn't have to choose between casting your ballot and risking your health. U.S. PIRG is calling on states to start preparing for the November election now by expanding their vote-by-mail options, and by planning for sanitized and socially distant polling places.
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.
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.
Tools & Resources
Author: Professor John C. Coates IV, Harvard Law School
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