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 | 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 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.

> Keep Reading
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.

> Keep Reading
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.

> Keep Reading

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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

> Keep Reading
News Release | U.S. PIRG | Democracy

Lobbyist Registrations Hit 18-Year Low

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

> Keep Reading
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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News Release | U.S. PIRG | Democracy

Government by the People Act Introduced by Rep. John Sarbanes

Building on state, local victories, bill offers national democracy reforms.

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Report | U.S. PIRG and Demos | Democracy

The Money Chase

Five years after the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. FEC decision, what are the roles of large donors and average voters in selecting and supporting candidates for Congress? This report examines the role of money in the 2014 congressional elections from both quantitative and qualitative perspectives, and demonstrates how matching small political contributions with limited public funds can change the campaign landscape for grassroots candidates.

> Keep Reading
Report | U.S. PIRG Education Fund and Demos | Democracy

The Dominance of Big Money in the 2014 Congressional Elections

In 2014, large donors accounted for the vast majority of all individual federal election contributions this cycle, just as they have in previous elections. Seven of every 10 individual contribution dollars to the federal candidates, parties, PACs and Super PACs that were active in the 2013-2014 election cycle came from donors who gave $200 or more. Candidates alone got 84 percent of their individual contributions from large donors.

> Keep Reading
Report | U.S. PIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Big Money Dominates in Congressional Primaries

Our analysis of fund-raising data from 2014’s congressional primaries examines the way these dynamics are playing out state by state across the country. While some states show markedly more inequity than others, the picture painted by the data is of a primary money race where large donors carry more weight than ordinary Americans. Nationwide, just under two-thirds of all candidate contributions came from the largest donors (those giving over $1,000). And fewer than 5,500 large donors matched the primary contributions coming from at least 440,000 donors nationwide.

> Keep Reading
Report | U.S. PIRG, Demos | Democracy

"McCutcheon" Could Add Over $1 Billion in Contributions to Next Four Elections

We project that striking the aggregate contribution limit would bring more than $1 billion in additional campaign contributions from elite donors through the 2020 election cycle.

> Keep Reading
Report | U.S. PIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Elections Confidential

“Elections Confidential” describes how secret donors poured hundreds of millions into the 2012 election through social-welfare groups that are really political vehicles and via shell corporations formed as conduits to hide a funder’s identity. The first post-Citizens United presidential election cycle was bought and paid for by a handful of wealthy donors, but the corrosive influence of money in politics was amplified by the fact that we don’t know who – or what – actually provided much of the funding.

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News Post | Democracy

Ohio: A voter access battleground | Sarah Friedman

Ohio has a long history of back-and-forth over early voting -- the decision has been made and reversed multiple times. Last week, however, a judge came to a verdict: The famed "Golden Week" is back. We've broken it down for you here.

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News Post | Democracy

Five things you need to know about gray money | Sarah Friedman

Since the 2010 Citizens United ruling, we've heard about Super PACs able to spend unlimited amounts on our elections while obscuring the sources of the cash. Now, their tactics are getting even more creative.

> Keep Reading
News 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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News 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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News 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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