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

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.

> Keep Reading
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.

> Keep Reading
News Release | Democracy

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

On Monday, 37 organizations signed , 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. 

> Keep Reading
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. 

> Keep Reading
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 , defending the SEC’s ability to strengthen transparency in campaign spending, and highlighting the . The Senate must pass a continuing resolution by the end of September in order to keep the government running.

> Keep Reading

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News Release | U.S. PIRG | Democracy

House Releases “By the People” Legislative Package

House Democratic leaders unveiled a package of democracy reform legislation as part of the “Stronger America” agenda. Titled “By the People,” the package includes proposals to overturn Citizens United and related cases through a Constitutional amendment, create a small donor empowerment program, disclose secret political spending, remove barriers to voting, and more. 

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

In Late-June Congressional Primary, Big-Money Candidates Win Big

On Tuesday, congressional candidates in Colorado, Oklahoma, New York, and Utah competed in primaries for the House and Senate. Higher-fundraising candidates won the vast majority of these races, repeating a trend that has so far defined congressional primaries in over thirty states across the country. According to an analysis by U.S. PIRG Education Fund, nearly 82 percent of higher fundraising candidates have won their congressional primaries so far in the 2016 election cycle.

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

ADVISORY: Congressional Money Report to Highlight Primaries through June 28

On Wednesday, June 29, U.S. PIRG Education Fund will release an update to its report on the success of big-money candidates in congressional primaries. The update will amend the report to include the results of House and Senate races in Maine, Nevada, North Dakota, South Carolina, Virginia, Colorado, New York, Oklahoma and Utah, showing how often better-funded congressional candidates win their races.

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

Senate Money in Politics Package Stops Short of Comprehensive Reform

On Thursday, lawmakers in the Senate introduced a package of election reform legislation. U.S. PIRG commends the sponsors of today’s legislation, but the proposed package fails to include one of the most essential campaign finance reform measures.

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

Big money maintains hold on congressional primaries in CA, IA, MT, NJ, NM, NC, SD

86% higher fundraising candidates win congressional primaries in 2016 elections

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Report | U.S. PIRG Education Fund | Democracy

The Role of Money in the 2002 Congressional Elections

This report provides a summary of the role of money in the 2002 congressional elections. While most analysts have focused on soft money in recent years, our findings indicate that hard money plays a more critical role in the political process.

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

Look Who's Not Coming to Washington 2002

Large contributions made by a small fraction of Americans unduly influence who can run for office and who wins elections in the United States. Without personal wealth or access to networks of wealthy contributors, many qualified and credible candidates are locked out of contention for federal office— often before voters have the opportunity to register their preferences.

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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.

> Keep Reading
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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News 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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News 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 Post | Democracy

House Needs to Enhance, Not Eliminate, Programs That Make Elections Work for People

The House Administration Committee is considering legislation this week that would repeal the presidential public financing system and the financing system for conventions, and close the Election Assistance Commission. If passed, these bills would pose a significant threat to the integrity of our campaign finance and election systems.

> Keep Reading
News Post | Democracy

IRS Scandal Highlights Need for Increased Transparency in Campaign Financing

It’s up to the IRS to ensure that nonprofits are not being used as illicit vehicles to funnel untraceable money into our elections. Unfortunately, the agency’s handling of this responsibility has been thoroughly outrageous, the latest scandal being just the latest example of disturbing action—or, as has been more often the case, inaction.

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News Post | Democracy

U.S. PIRG Mourns the Loss of Common Cause President Bob Edgar

The movement to create a more equal and participative democracy lost an inspirational and tireless leader this week.

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