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 all-time low, 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 16 states and nearly 600 cities, 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 61 percent 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 19 percent 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, Flickr User: Joe Shlabotnik - Creative Commons, and Stefan Klapko Photography.

Issue updates

Result | Democracy

With Unanimous Bipartisan Vote, Automatic Voter Registration Bill Passes Massachusetts Senate

With a unanimous, bipartisan vote of 38-0, the Massachusetts Senate today passed Automatic Voter Registration. The AVR legislation would establish a system for eligible citizens to automatically register to vote when they interact with a state agency like the Registry of Motor Vehicles or MassHealth. Approximately 680,000 eligible Massachusetts voters are currently not registered to vote. 

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Blog Post | Democracy

Happy Birthday Citizens United; May It Be Your Last | Joe Ready

This month, the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision turns eight. With all that’s going on in politics, it’s easy to focus on the latest scandal or hot take. But we should take the opportunity on this anniversary to focus on what I would argue is at the root of our political quagmire.

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Democracy

It’s Time to Invest in Our Democracy | Joe Ready

We’ve seen a lot of politicians talking about “infrastructure” recently. While everyone seems to have a slightly different vision of what that catch-all term means, we have transpartisan agreement that we need to do something about our most critical infrastructure. But while our roads, bridges and sewers certainly need work, I’d argue that the infrastructure we most urgently need to invest in isn’t so concrete — it’s our democracy.

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Blog Post | Democracy

Equifax shareholders should shed sunlight on political spending | Joe Ready

On Thursday, the shareholders of Equifax, Inc., will vote on whether or not the corporation should disclose not just direct political contributions but also secret, dark money spending. The shareholders should not let this opportunity to know how their company is spending its money slip through their fingers.

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News Release | U.S. PIRG | Democracy

Victory for Democracy in DC: Mayor Bowser Signs Fair Elections Act

WASHINGTON, D.C.- Advocates and activists celebrated on Tuesday as Mayor Bowser signed the Fair Elections Act, a major democracy reform that will bring small donor public financing to local elections. The Mayor’s signature comes after the D.C. Council voted unanimously to pass the Fair Elections Act in February. Small donor empowerment programs provide public matching funds to candidates who accept only small contributions, rather than relying on wealthy donors and special interests to bankroll their campaigns. 

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Pages

News Release | U.S. PIRG | Democracy

Victory for Democracy in DC: Mayor Bowser Signs Fair Elections Act

WASHINGTON, D.C.- Advocates and activists celebrated on Tuesday as Mayor Bowser signed the Fair Elections Act, a major democracy reform that will bring small donor public financing to local elections. The Mayor’s signature comes after the D.C. Council voted unanimously to pass the Fair Elections Act in February. Small donor empowerment programs provide public matching funds to candidates who accept only small contributions, rather than relying on wealthy donors and special interests to bankroll their campaigns. 

> Keep Reading
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 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 | Democracy

Welcome Step: D.C. Fair Elections Reintroduced

It is a welcome step that legislation reintroduced today would limit the influence of big money and special interests in District elections while amplifying the voices of everyday residents, the D.C. Fair Elections Coalition said.

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Pages

Result | Democracy

With Unanimous Bipartisan Vote, Automatic Voter Registration Bill Passes Massachusetts Senate

With a unanimous, bipartisan vote of 38-0, the Massachusetts Senate today passed Automatic Voter Registration. The AVR legislation would establish a system for eligible citizens to automatically register to vote when they interact with a state agency like the Registry of Motor Vehicles or MassHealth. Approximately 680,000 eligible Massachusetts voters are currently not registered to vote. 

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Result | Democracy

Delivering one million petitions to President Obama on dark money

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Result | Democracy

Giving more Americans a greater voice in our elections

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Report | U.S. PIRG | Democracy

Good Government Leaders Call on Senate to Postpone Price Vote

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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.

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Report | U.S. PIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Congressional Primaries by Fundraising Receipts

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Report | U.S. PIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Guide to Convention Funding: Democratic National Convention

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Report | U.S. PIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Guide to Convention Funding: Cleveland GOP Convention

On July 18-21, the Republican Party will hold its 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, concluding the party’s presidential primary, and finalizing the Republican party platform. This report examines the money behind the convention, where it comes from, how convention fundraising has changed over time, and funding in this year’s Republican primary.

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Pages

Blog Post | Democracy

Happy Birthday Citizens United; May It Be Your Last | Joe Ready

This month, the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision turns eight. With all that’s going on in politics, it’s easy to focus on the latest scandal or hot take. But we should take the opportunity on this anniversary to focus on what I would argue is at the root of our political quagmire.

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Democracy

It’s Time to Invest in Our Democracy | Joe Ready

We’ve seen a lot of politicians talking about “infrastructure” recently. While everyone seems to have a slightly different vision of what that catch-all term means, we have transpartisan agreement that we need to do something about our most critical infrastructure. But while our roads, bridges and sewers certainly need work, I’d argue that the infrastructure we most urgently need to invest in isn’t so concrete — it’s our democracy.

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Democracy

Equifax shareholders should shed sunlight on political spending | Joe Ready

On Thursday, the shareholders of Equifax, Inc., will vote on whether or not the corporation should disclose not just direct political contributions but also secret, dark money spending. The shareholders should not let this opportunity to know how their company is spending its money slip through their fingers.

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Blog 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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Blog 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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