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

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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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

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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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

Shutdown Nears, Budget Bill Fails on Secret Money, Flint Concerns

On Tuesday, the Senate failed to pass a short-term budget bill to keep the government running due to opposition over a secret-money rider and a lack of federal funding to address the Flint water crisis. The proposed secret-money rider would prohibit the SEC from strengthening corporate disclosure laws by requiring transparency of secret political spending.

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News Release | U.S. PIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Holt fails to deliver on debate questions

Thousands of viewers demand money in politics coverage, Holt fails to deliver.

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News Release | Democracy

Broad Coalition Urges Sen. McConnell to Drop Secret-Money Rider

On Monday, 37 organizations signed an open letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, urging McConnell to reject any poison pill language in budget legislation that would prohibit the Securities and Exchange Commission from strengthening corporate disclosure laws by requiring transparency of secret political spending. A proposed secret-money rider is a sticking point in Senate budget negotiations, as lawmakers debate a continuing resolution which must pass by the end of September to keep the government open. 

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News Release | U.S. PIRG | Democracy

Senate risks shutdown, attaching secret-money rider to CR

On Thursday, Senate leadership revealed language for a continuing resolution, which includes a rider preventing the Securities and Exchange Commission from strengthening corporate political spending disclosure. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid spoke out against the rider, defending the SEC’s ability to strengthen transparency in campaign spending, and highlighting the political cost of a government shutdown. The Senate must pass a continuing resolution by the end of September in order to keep the government running.

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News Release | U.S. PIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Better-Funded Candidates Sweep Congressional Primaries

On Tuesday, this year’s congressional primaries came to a close, following over 340 competitive races in states across the country. According to analysis by U.S. PIRG Education Fund, candidates who outraised their opponents swept the vast majority of primaries, winning their election 83 percent of the time.

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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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Blog Post | Democracy

In the Aftermath of VRA Ruling, a Wave of Voter Suppression Laws

It has been barely a month since the Supreme Court issued its controversial Voting Rights Act (VRA) ruling — yet already, in states across the country, laws are being implemented and proposed that are designed to severely limit voting access, and that will ultimately harm American democracy.

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Blog Post | Democracy

New Wisconsin Bill Would Let the People Decide On Citizens United

Two state legislators have introduced legislation that, when passed, will bring a question to the 2014 ballot on overturning Citizens United and eliminating big money in elections.

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Blog Post | Democracy

Wisconsin Bill Would Double Campaign Contribution Limits, Increase Big Money in Politics

Wisconsin is the latest state to consider raising contribution limits in a trend that ignores the real problems of our current campaign finance system.

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Blog Post | Democracy

Supreme Court Strikes Down Arizona Law, Protects the Right to Vote

This week, the Supreme Court strengthened our democracy by striking down a burdensome Arizona law that required physical proof of citizenship for voter registration.

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Blog Post | Democracy

Illinois and Delaware 14th and 15th States to Support Constitutional Amendment to Get Big Money Out of Elections

With the votes, Illinois and Delaware joined a steadily growing list, including 13 other states and nearly 500 municipalities, calling for an amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s decision to equate money as speech and corporations as people.

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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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