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

Fair Elections Ballot Initiatives Win in States Nationwide

Voters pass initiatives in Maryland, Washington, California, South Dakota

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

REPORT: 77% of money in senate races comes from out-of-state

A new report by U.S. PIRG Education Fund shows that 77 percent of funding in the 34 senate races happening nationwide comes from out-of-state. Released on Monday, Outside Influence: Out-of-State Money in the 2016 Senate Elections highlights the share of money that candidates, PACs, super PACs, and party committees have raised from outside the state they are spending on. In seven swing senate races highlighted in the report, a full 81 percent of election funding is coming from out-of-state.

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

Outside Influence: Out-of-state money in the 2016 senate elections

Control of the United States Senate is at stake in the 2016 elections. Out of 34 senate races nationally, the outcome could be decided by just several swing states and a few key constituencies. But there is another deciding factor in this year’s race for the senate: money.

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

ADVISORY: Out-of-State Spending Could Decide Swing Senate Races

On Monday, October 24, U.S. PIRG Education Fund will release Outside Influence: Out-of-State Money in the 2016 Senate Elections, a report examining out-of-state money funneled into the 2016 senate races. Findings highlight the share of money that candidates, PACs, super PACs, and party committees have raised from out-of-state, with a focus on money in swing elections which could decide party control of the Senate.

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

California Gov. Jerry Brown Signs Law Enabling Citizen-Funded Election Reforms

On Thursday, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed SB 1107 into law, enabling California cities, counties, and the state to enact small donor matching programs that amplify the voices of voters in local elections. Under a small donor empowerment system, candidates who voluntarily opt in and agree to turn down large contributions receive limited public matching funds for each small contribution they secure.

> Keep Reading

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News Release | U.S. PIRG & Public Citizen | Democracy

Fort Myer Construction and Associates Gave More Than $130,000 to D.C. Council in Past Five Years

Top executives and their families at Fort Myer Construction – the D.C.-based construction company involved in a contracting controversy with Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office – have donated at least $130,000 to 18 candidates since 2011. They used contributions from 11 sources, according to  by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG) and Public Citizen. The case highlights the need for public financing of elections.

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News Release | U.S. PIRG | Democracy

California legislature opens door to citizen-funded elections

 

On Wednesday, the California State Senate passed SB 1107, a bill to lift California’s ban on small donor empowerment programs, following passage in the State Assembly. Small donor empowerment programs provide limited public matching funds for small contributions to qualifying lawmakers. SB 1107 received bipartisan support from two-thirds of state legislators in the Senate and Assembly and now heads to California Governor Jerry Brown for consideration.

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

Convention Funding Guide Tracks Money, Donors, Fundraising Rules

A snapshot of the sources of convention funding, what contribution limits and laws apply to convention fundraising, and the impact of large private contributors.

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Report | U.S. PIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Raising the Limits

Using Federal Election Commission data on federal candidate fundraising from individuals, parties, and political action committees, we found that BCRA’s doubling of contribution limits did not deliver the promised benefit of more competitive elections and may be, in part, responsible for several harmful emerging trends. Races did not become more competitive; in fact, incumbents continued to out-raise challengers and win re-election at high rates.

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Report | U.S. PIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Look Who's Not Coming to Washington

Large contributions made by a small fraction of Americans unduly influence who runs for office and who wins elections in the United States.

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Report | Research for The Rest of Us | Democracy

Making Safe Seats Safer

Large campaign contributions allow wealthy donors to unduly influence who can run for office and who wins elections in Ohio. This analysis examines the role of campaign contributions in influencing the outcome of Ohio elections.

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Report | U.S. PIRG Education Fund | Democracy

The Wealth Primary 2004

Building on our analyses of the 2002 congressional primary and general elections, we examined campaign finance data compiled by the Federal Election Commission (FEC) for the 2004 congressional primaries. Predictably, we found that money continued to play 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

Toward a Small Donor Democracy

Long before voters register their preferences on Election Day, the flow of political money determines which candidates are able to mount viable campaigns for federal office. Providing public incentives for small political contributions could help average Americans play a more meaningful role in influencing who has the resources to run effective campaigns and win public office.

> Keep Reading

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News 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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News 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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News 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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News 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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News 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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