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 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.

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

Congressional Primaries by Fundraising Receipts

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.

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

Congressional Money Report to Highlight Impact of Big Money in Primaries

On Wednesday, September 14, U.S. PIRG Education Fund will release a final 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 all states, showing how often better-funded congressional candidates win their races. 

> Keep Reading
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.

> Keep Reading
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

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

ADVISORY: Congressional Money Report to Highlight June 7 Primaries

On Wednesday, June 8, 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 California, Iowa, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina and South Dakota, showing how often better-funded congressional candidates win their races.

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

In ID, KY, OR, Big Money Continues to Win Congressional Primaries

83% higher fundraising candidates win congressional primaries in 2016 elections

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

ADVISORY: Congressional Money Report to Highlight KY, ID, OR Races

On Wednesday, May 18, U.S. PIRG Education Fund will release an update to its report on the success of big-money candidates in congressional primaries.

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

Vermont becomes fourth state to pass automatic voter registration

Thursday morning, Governor Peter Shumlin signed automatic voter registration (AVR) legislation into law making Vermont the fourth state to pass such legislation.

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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.

> Keep Reading
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.

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

Dirty Dollars, Dirty Air

This report documents the influence of the auto and oil industry on public policy and debates surrounding the control of pollution that causes smog, soot and global warming. It tracks the amount of campaign contributions made by the 164 largest companies in the automobile and oil industries and how those contributions influenced members of Congress on clean air issues.

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Report | U.S. PIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Pushing The Limit

At least five proposals to increase limits on contributions by individuals to congressional candidates -- either as stand-alone measures or as part of a package of campaign finance measures -- have been floated by important political groups and individuals in the past year. The following paper analyzes the likely impact of these proposals on which candidates get elected and on the power of wealthy interests vs. the general public in governmental decision making.

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News Post | Democracy

Youth vote surges in election | Ed Mierzwinski

In case you missed it, the Student PIRG New Voters Campaign has a release explaining that "the youth share of the electorate increased to 19 percent in 2012 over 18 percent in 2008." The PIRGs helped register over 100,000 new voters in this cycle.

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News Post | Democracy

Why Target is Still a Target

Two years ago, when Target’s CEO Gregg Steinhafel used corporate general treasury funds to support a group backing a candidate known for his outspoken anti-LGBT positions, it was more than a blemish on the reputation of a corporation that brands itself as progressive. That irresponsible contribution was a violation of both shareholder and public trust and, not surprisingly, it resulted in scandal and boycotts that threatened the assets of shareholders who never authorized the use of their money for political spending

Target learned first-hand what it should have already known: consumers and shareholders do not want corporations to muddy up our democracy by interfering with our elections, yet it has not yet adopted a policy against this spending. Today, at Target’s annual shareholder meeting in Chicago, shareholders will take a vote on a resolution to refrain from political spending to once again remind Target that corporate electioneering is bad for shareholders and is bad for democracy.

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News Post | Democracy

Who Owns Big Oil? We Do!

The American Petroleum Institute has a new public image campaign: . The purpose of this website, presumably, is to convince us that if we raise taxes on hugely profitable corporations we will only be hurting ourselves. Why? Because we are all shareholders of those corporations and when they are taxed we suffer.

While I am skeptical of API’s conclusions, it’s right to say we own the oil companies. In fact, shareholders across the country are demanding accountability and disclosure from the corporations that they rightfully own and the effort could be the key to slowing the flow of corporate money in the 2012 election.

> Keep Reading
News Post | Democracy

Disempowered Bankers Start Super PAC, Reveal Plans for World Domination

While I am highly skeptical of the sentiment that "Congress is not afraid of bankers", given that banking lobbyists banking reform advocates 25-1 and that the Chairman of the Senate Financial Services Subcommittee that "the banks own the place," the most ridiculous thing about members of the American Bankers Association's announcement of the industry's new Super PAC may be their willingness to reveal its strategy for skirting the non-coordination rules. This speaks volumes about how the industry thinks about its involvement in politics.

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News Post | Democracy

Making Super PACs Illegal

Polling shows that almost 7 out of 10 voters believe that super PACs, the independent expenditure only committees created in the wake of the Supreme Court’s disastrous Citizens United decision, should be illegal. Unfortunately, due to the Court’s backwards interpretation of the first amendment, we cannot legislate away super PACs today. However, there are some very important steps that every level of government – from your city council to the White House - should take right now to mitigate the impact of super PACs before the 2012 election.

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