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

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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News Release | U.S. PIRG | Democracy

Victory for Democracy in DC: Mayor Bowser Signs Fair Elections Act

WASHINGTON, D.C.- Advocates and activists celebrated on Tuesday as Mayor Bowser signed the Fair Elections Act, a major democracy reform that will bring small donor public financing to local elections. The Mayor’s signature comes after the D.C. Council voted unanimously to pass the Fair Elections Act in February. Small donor empowerment programs provide public matching funds to candidates who accept only small contributions, rather than relying on wealthy donors and special interests to bankroll their campaigns. 

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News Release | U.S. PIRG | Democracy

Victory for democracy as D.C. Council approves Fair Elections Act

 

By approving the Fair Elections Act of 2017, the D.C. Council today voted to strengthen local democracy, empower small donors and break down barriers to running for office.

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News Release | U.S. PIRG and DC Fair Elections Coalition | Democracy

D.C. Council Moves Forward Transformative Fair Elections Bill in Unanimous 13-0 Vote

Tuesday, in a 13-0 vote, the D.C. Council voted decisively to advance the Fair Elections Act of 2017 at first reading, which lays the foundation for public financing in the District and reduces barriers for DC candidates and voters.

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News Release | Democracy

Our Statement Regarding the President’s “Commission on Election Integrity”

Read U.S. PIRG's statement on the President's establishment of an "Advisory Commission on Election Integrity."

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Pages

Report | U.S. PIRG Education Fund | Democracy

The Best Elections Money Can Buy

One of American democracy’s most pressing problems is that large contributions—which only a fraction of the American public can afford to make—unduly influence who can run for office and who wins elections in the United States. In 2000, 94 percent of the candidates who raised the most money won their general election contests.1 In the 2002 congressional primaries, 90 percent of the biggest fundraisers emerged victorious.

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Report | U.S. PIRG Education Fund | Democracy

The Wealth Primary 2002

Our analysis of Federal Election Commission (FEC) campaign finance data for the 2002 election cycle indicates that money played a key role in determining election outcomes and that the majority of campaign contributions came from a small number of large donors (many of whom reside out-of-state).

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Report | U.S. PIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Contribution Limits And Competitiveness

For years, academics, political theorists, and campaign finance reformers have debated the causal relationship between campaign contribution limits and the outcome of elections. Some argue that limiting campaign contributions amounts to "incumbent protection;" others contend that limits make challengers more competitive. This study is the first of its kind to comprehensively examine the states with contribution limits and empirically measure changes in competitiveness.

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Report | U.S. PIRG Education Fund | Democracy

The Lobbyist's Last Laugh

Despite giving almost a quarter of a million dollars to candidates, Political Action Committees (PACs) and parties in the last election cycle, K Street did not mount a campaign against the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill as it went to the floor of the Senate earlier this year. The reason lies in the fine print of the bill.

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Report | U.S. PIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Lone Star Election Laws

Texas lags behind most states in several key areas of campaign finance law, according to a report released today by the U.S. PIRG Education Fund and Texans for Public Justice. The report, titled Lone Star Election Laws found that Texas is one of only 14 states in the country that place absolutely no limit on what wealthy donors can give a candidate. Further, Texas does nothing to cap the massive levels of campaign spending or limit contributions from out of state donors.

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Pages

Blog Post | Democracy

Super PAC Industry Grows 500% in Just Four Years

Five-hundred percent. According to a new report that’s how much spending by super PACs and outside groups has grown since the last presidential election. Across economic sectors, that kind of growth is unheard of.

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Blog Post | Democracy

Let’s put voters back on the map

Big money politics has put our democracy at risk, pushing regular voters to the sidelines as candidates work to court corporate and wealthy donors. As the 2016 election heats up, we thought you should know which corporate PACs are footing the bill in your state.

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Blog Post | Democracy

Democracy for All | Michael Russo

Yesterday, the U.S. Senate opened debate on a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision that opened the floodgates to big-money campaign cash. Passage of this constitutional amendment would allow limits to be set on large-dollar contributions and campaign spending.

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Blog Post | Democracy

The End of Net Neutrality As We Know It? | Ed Mierzwinski

On Thursday, 5/15 the FCC meets to propose new rules "to protect and promote the open Internet," after a court threw out parts of its current rules. The problem, however, is that some of the FCC Chairman's preliminary comments suggest he's for killing the core feature of the open Internet, Net Neutrality, in order to save it.

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Blog Post | Democracy

The People Strike Back

On October 8, as the Supreme Court debated lifting the aggregate limit on campaign contributions, a growing democracy movement was out in full force in front of the Court and in cities across the country.

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Pages

News Release | U.S. PIRG

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

News Release | U.S. PIRG

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.

News Release | U.S. PIRG

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.

News Release | U.S. PIRG

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.

News Release | U.S. PIRG

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, which is coming a bit earlier than usual this week, highlights the work we’re doing on the COVID-19 voting front, and other important developments in the news.

Democracy

CDC guidelines offer roadmap to the safest elections for the most voters

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.

 

Democracy

States should start preparing for November voting now

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.

 

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. 

 
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