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

Blog Post | Democracy

A reluctant convert to vote-by-mail

I’m a big vote-in-person guy, but not at the risk of spreading infection.

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News Release | WISPIRG | Democracy

Wisconsin leaders fail to ensure safe election during COVID-19

Wisconsin is holding its spring elections Tuesday despite the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak causing a state stay-at-home order and social distancing guidelines that advise against gatherings of any size. Peter Skopec, director of WISPIRG, issued the following statement in response.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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. 

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News Release | U.S. PIRG | Democracy

U.S. PIRG Statement on Rucho v. Common Cause

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. 

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News Release | U.S. PIRG | Democracy

U.S. PIRG Statement on the Passage of the "For the People Act"

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.

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News Release | U.S. PIRG | Democracy

U.S. PIRG Marks the 9th Anniversary of the Citizens United Decision

Today, U.S. PIRG marks the nine year anniversary of the Supreme Court’s misguided Citizens United decision. While Citizens United has been disastrous for our democracy, there is hope for reform. A strong, bi-partisan majority of Americans support overturning the decision.

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Pages

Report | U.S. PIRG and Money in Politics Coalition | Democracy

Our Voices Our Democracy

On the verge of the most expensive election in U.S. history—and six years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s disastrous Citizens United decision—Americans are demanding a government that is truly by the people, where every voice is heard and every vote counts.

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Report | U.S. PIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Boosting the Impact of Small Donors, Q3 2015

Candidates in the 2016 presidential race could see a dramatic shift in fundraising under a small donor empowerment program, according to a new study by U.S. PIRG

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Report | U.S. PIRG | Democracy

Fighting Big Money, Empowering People

Like every generation before us, Americans are coming together to preserve a democracy of the people, by the people, and for the people. American democracy is premised on the consent of the governed, and on the idea that we all deserve a say in the government decisions that affect our families. We stand united supporting commonsense protections that recognize the people as the ultimate check on the corrosive influence of money in politics, which is eroding the very foundation of self-government.

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Report | U.S. PIRG and Demos | Democracy

The Money Chase

Five years after the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. FEC decision, what are the roles of large donors and average voters in selecting and supporting candidates for Congress? This report examines the role of money in the 2014 congressional elections from both quantitative and qualitative perspectives, and demonstrates how matching small political contributions with limited public funds can change the campaign landscape for grassroots candidates.

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Report | U.S. PIRG Education Fund and Demos | Democracy

The Dominance of Big Money in the 2014 Congressional Elections

In 2014, large donors accounted for the vast majority of all individual federal election contributions this cycle, just as they have in previous elections. Seven of every 10 individual contribution dollars to the federal candidates, parties, PACs and Super PACs that were active in the 2013-2014 election cycle came from donors who gave $200 or more. Candidates alone got 84 percent of their individual contributions from large donors.

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Pages

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.

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Blog Post | Democracy

Disenfranchised voters deserve action | Sean Doyle

At least 26,000 voters in Pennsylvania were disenfranchised, through no fault of their own, before the last election due to problems processing their voter registration applications. What happened?

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Blog Post | Democracy

A bipartisan approach to modernizing voter registration | Sean Doyle

In today’s political climate, it can feel like political parties can’t even agree on what time of day it is. But there are some surprising areas of cooperation among Democrats and Republicans at the state level. One such area is in modernizing voter registration with a policy known as automatic voter registration.

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Blog Post | Democracy

Let’s Put Voters Back on the Map | Sean Doyle

Some of the biggest contributors to candidates in our elections are corporations, which spend tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars on political contests up and down the ballot. The influence of corporate money in our elections puts our democracy at risk, pushing regular voters to the sidelines as candidates work to court big money interests.

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Blog Post | Democracy

Call your representative and senators every day. Here's how. | Andre Delattre

There’s a lot unfolding in Washington, D.C., right now, and you may be wondering: “What can I do to voice my concerns?”

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Pages

Blog Post

Protecting our elections will require an all-hands-on-deck effort from state and federal governments, local election officials, policy experts, non-profits, civic groups and citizens. U.S. PIRG is a federation of state-based organizations with decades of experience generating support for and winning policies that improve our democracy. As such, while supporting the federal reforms, we are best-positioned to help drive the state level part of this effort. Here’s where we stand right now, and what we plan to do going forward.

News Release | U.S. PIRG

U.S. PIRG and its state affiliates are working to ensure that every eligible American voter has the ability to participate in democracy, even during a pandemic. We’re calling on states to start preparing now to ensure safe elections in November, including 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

Blog Post

Simple steps to participate in democracy and preserve your health

News Release | U.S. PIRG

U.S. PIRG and its state affiliates are working to ensure that every eligible American voter has the ability to participate in democracy, even during a pandemic. We’re calling on states to start preparing now to ensure safe elections in November, including 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.

News Release | U.S. PIRG

U.S. PIRG and its state affiliates are working to ensure that every eligible American voter has the ability to participate in democracy, even during a pandemic. We’re calling on states to start preparing now to ensure safe elections in November, including 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.

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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