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 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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News Release | U.S. PIRG | Democracy

U.S. PIRG Statement on the introduction of the For the People Act

WASHINGTON, DC – On Thursday, January 3, House Democratic leaders unveiled a package of democracy reform legislation titled “For the People,” or House Resolution 1 (H.R.1). The package includes 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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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. 

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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.

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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.

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News Release | U.S. PIRG | Democracy

Track Rep. Price’s Unethical Investment in Real Time

Following an outcry from good government organizations over Rep. Tom Price’s suspect stock trades, U.S. PIRG has released a new online tool at InvestigatePrice.com, tracking money made by Rep. Price through unethical investments in Innate Immunotherapeutics Ltd.

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News Release | U.S. PIRG | Democracy

Responding to Ethics Concerns, Good Gov. Groups Urge Delay on Price Vote

Good government groups urge Senate leadership to delay voting on Mr. Price’s nomination until the SEC has had the opportunity to fully investigate suspect stock activity.

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News Release | U.S. PIRG | Democracy

Statement: Rep. Price Should Withdraw His Nomination

Conflicts of interest and discounted, privileged stock buy don’t pass muster

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News Release | U.S. PIRG | Democracy

Lobbyist Registrations Hit 18-Year Low

Year-end reports filed this month show shrinking number of registered lobbyists

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News Release | U.S. PIRG | Democracy

Trump Signs Lobbying Ban EO, Success Depends on Promised Reforms

President Donald Trump signs five-year lobbying ban for Executive Branch officials

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Report | U.S. PIRG | Democracy, Tax

Who Slows the Pace of Tax Reforms?

As Congress considers a number of international tax reforms and loophole closing measures, the Administration and Congress have heard from many stakeholders. One of the more vocal groups has been the coalition called Promote America’s Competitive Edge, or PACE.  To better understand where opposition to reforms is coming from, U.S.

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Report | U.S. PIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Saving Dollars, Saving Democracy

A more streamlined and automatic system linking existing databases with the state voter rolls could free up significant resources at the local level.  Thanks to the Help America Vote Act, we have already seen technological change in the initial creation of the mandated state database voter rolls.  By creating a more automatic system, the majority of the cost burden currently facing election officials due to registration could be eliminated.

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Report | U.S. PIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Vanishing Voters

Fifteen years after enactment of the NVRA, many states continue to appear unaware of the federal rules regarding voter roll purges. A survey of state laws and election officials shows that, on the eve of the 2008 general election, many voters across the country do not appear to enjoy the important voter protection provisions afforded by the NVRA.

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Report | U.S. PIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Funding Clean Elections

The spiraling cost of campaigns, high-profile scandals and voter distrust of Congress have fueled an effort for fundamental reform of the way we fund congressional campaigns. As a result, many federal decision-makers have been working on proposals to create a Clean Elections model for publicly financing congressional campaigns. As a part of the effort to build support both within the Democratic caucus and across party lines, it is important to know how much the program will cost and options to pay for that cost.

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Report | U.S. PIRG | Democracy

Breaking Free With Fair Elections

Fair Elections – systems with full public financing of elections – would help improve the openness, honesty, and accountability of government. They would also free public officials to respond to the interests of voters without worrying about hurting their ability to raise money from deep-pocketed donors. If we want to protect the environment, design a better health care system or improve our energy policy, we need a political system that encourages lawmakers to listen more to voters than to oil and gas companies, pharmaceutical giants and other industries.

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Pages

Blog Post | Democracy

What to watch this primary day | Sarah Friedman

Today, 166 congressional primary nominations will be up for grabs -- more than any other single day this year. Big money could play a deciding role.

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Blog Post | Democracy

Shell companies are hijacking our democracy | Jeremy Flood

Anonymous shell companies are funnelling "dark money" into Super PACs at an alarming rate. The public has a right to know who is financing our elections.  

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One graphic explains automatic voter registration | Sarah Friedman

States across the country are taking action to update their elections with automatic voter registration.

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Blog Post | Democracy

Happy Birthday, Bob Dylan: Three Democracy Lessons We Learned from an American IconOlivia LutwakVania Canales-Canales

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Panama Papers Tie Mega-Donors to Offshore Tax Loopholes | Sarah Friedman

We always knew that the big money pouring into this year's election wasn't coming from everyday Americans, but new reports reveal ties to offshore tax dodging.

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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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