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 , 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 , 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 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 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, , and Stefan Klapko Photography.

Issue updates

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 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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News 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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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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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  by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG).

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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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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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Report | U.S. PIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Empowering Small Donors in DC Elections

This report examines how a small donor matching program would have reshaped the fundraising of competitive candidates for DC Council, Mayor, and Attorney General during their most recent campaigns.

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Report | U.S. PIRG | Democracy

Boosting the Impact of Small Donors, February 2016

Mega-donors and special interest groups have flooded this year’s presidential race with a record breaking sum of money. What would our elections look like if a small donor empowerment program were in place?

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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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News 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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News 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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News Post | Democracy

Cruz, Meadows propose rollback to campaign contribution limits

On Wednesday, Senator Ted Cruz and Representative Mark Meadows introduced legislation that would , allowing wealthy donors to give unlimited funds to the campaigns of their choice. The proposal by Cruz and Meadows comes on the heels of an election in which money in politics was a .

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News Post | Democracy

Here's Where Your Congressional Candidates Get Their Funding

When we hear about the influence of money in politics, we often hear about it at the presidential level. Clinton accepted a donation from Y, or Trump’s top contributor said X. And there’s good reason for that: mega-donors are in the driver’s seat when it comes to presidential fundraising. But when it comes to money in politics, that’s not the whole picture. It’s not even close. 

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News Post | Democracy

Secret Money’s Big Bang | Olivia Lutwak

The explosion of political spending by groups that don’t disclose their donors

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