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

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.

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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.

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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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Pages

News Release | U.S. PIRG | Democracy

Welcome Step: D.C. Fair Elections Reintroduced

It is a welcome step that legislation reintroduced today would limit the influence of big money and special interests in District elections while amplifying the voices of everyday residents, the D.C. Fair Elections Coalition said.

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News Release | U.S. PIRG | Budget, Democracy, Tax

AT&T, Duke Energy and Disney among the largest corporate donors to candidates in 2016

Corporations from Walmart, to Aflac, to Duke Energy were among the largest contributors to candidates in states during 2016, according to a new analysis of data by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG).

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U.S. PIRG Statement on President Trump’s First Address to Congress

President Trump gave his first address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday, highlighting his legislative priorities for the coming year. His speech touched on issues ranging from the budget, infrastructure, and special interest influence in government.

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News Release | U.S. PIRG | Democracy

President Addresses Special Interest Influence in Speech to Congress

In his first address to a joint session of Congress Tuesday night, President Trump referenced his efforts to reform ethics in Washington.

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News Release | U.S. PIRG | Democracy

Chicago Board of Ethics Enforces Strong Lobbying Disclosure Laws

David Plouffe, a former campaign manager for President Obama, was fined $90,000 Thursday for failing to register as a lobbyist after reaching out to Mayor Rahm Emanuel on behalf of the ride-sharing company Uber. The fine, the largest ever imposed by the Chicago Board of Ethics, stands in stark contrast to federal lobbying disclosure laws that allow special interests to legally influence elected officials without reporting their work. Congress can follow the lead of this strong local example to pass ethics reforms that require transparency of all lobbying activity.

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

Million-Dollar Megaphones

Although each major party presidential candidate will likely break previous fundraising records, the big story of the 2012 election has been the role of Super PACs, nonprofits and outside spending generally. Demos and U.S. PIRG Education Fund analyzed Federal Election Commission (FEC) data and secondary sources on outside spending and Super PAC fundraising for the first two quarters of the 2012 election cycle.

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Report | U.S. PIRG Education Fund | Budget, Democracy, Tax

Loopholes for Sale

A new report by U.S. PIRG and Citizens for Tax Justice (CTJ) found that thirty unusually aggressive tax dodging corporations have made campaign contributions to 524 (98 percent) sitting members of Congress, and disproportionately to the leadership of both parties and to key committee members. The report, Loopholes for Sale: Campaign Contributions by Corporate Tax Dodgers, examines campaign contributions made by a total of 280 profitable Fortune 500 companies in 2006, 2008, 2010 and to date in 2012.

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

Business Contributions to Super PACs

Contrary to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, for-profit businesses should not be permitted to spend treasury funds to influence elections. First, most businesses are constrained to participate only to maximize private profit, rather than out of regard for the public good. More important, this spending undermines political equality by allowing wealthy institutions to translate economic success into political power.

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Report | U.S. PIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Auctioning Democracy

A new report by U.S. PIRG Education Fund and Demos shows an analysis of the funding sources for the campaign finance behemoths, Super PACs. The findings confirmed what many have predicted in the wake of the Supreme Court’s damaging Citizens United decision: since their inception in 2010, Super PACs have been primarily funded by a small segment of very wealthy individuals and business interests, with a small but significant amount of funds coming from secret sources.

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Report | U.S. PIRG Education Fund | Democracy, Tax

Representation Without Taxation

Marking the second anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission case – which opened the floodgates to corporate spending on elections – this report takes a hard look at the lobbying activities of profitable Fortune 500 companies that exploit loopholes and work to distort the tax code to avoid billions of dollars in taxes.

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Pages

Blog Post | Democracy

Five Ways Big Money Changed Since our Last Race for the White House | Samantha Garzillo

Today, the influence of big money in our elections continues to grow. This year, we see more super PACs, more secret money, and a smaller handful donors able to fund a larger share of the election. But you don’t have to take our word for it, just take a look at the numbers. Here are five of the biggest changes we’ve seen over the past four years in campaign fundraising.

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Blog Post | Democracy

The Five Worst Election Disasters of 2016 | Nick Kauzlarich

As the election cycle heats up, barriers to the polls are becoming a serious problem to more and more voters across the country. Whether it’s waiting five hours in line just to cast a vote or delaying local elections due to gerrymandering, voters have been prevented from taking part in our democracy this primary season. Here are the five worst election disasters of 2016. 

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Blog Post | Democracy

Six Twitter users to follow for all things democracy

This election cycle news about money in politics, election fiascos and voting rights is breaking at the speed of, well, Twitter. If you want to stay up-to-date, we’ve got your back.

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Blog Post | Democracy

Losing the Voting Rights Act: A Timeline | Sarah Friedman

A historic piece of legislation, the Voting Rights Act has protected fair access to the polls since 1965. But recent changes have gutted critical protections offered by the VRA. Here's what you need to know.

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Blog Post | Democracy

The Senate just introduced major election reforms, but will they be enough? | Olivia Lutwak

The money in politics legislation introduced today in the Senate is a major step in the right direction -- but will it be enough to put everyday Americans in control of our elections?

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Pages

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

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.

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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