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.

Image: Flickr User: Joe Shlabotnik - Creative Commons

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 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.

Issue updates

Report | ConnPIRG 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 | ConnPIRG 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 | ConnPIRG | Democracy

Billion-Dollar Democracy

The first presidential campaign cycle since the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling lived up to its hype, breaking previous records for total spending and exaggerating the undue electoral power of wealthy individuals and special interests.  This report offers a comprehensive analysis of the fundraising and spending in federal races in the 2012 elections.

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News Release | ConnPIRG | Democracy

TODAY SUPREME COURT RULED FOR ANOTHER FLOOD OF BIG MONEY

Today the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in McCutcheon v. FEC to strike down overall, or aggregate, contribution limits to candidates and political committees. U.S. PIRG research found that this ruling could bring $1 billion in additional campaign contributions from fewer than 2,800 elite donors through the 2020 election cycle.

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Democracy

Online Voter Registration | Evan Preston

Yesterday, ConnPIRG staff joined Governor Malloy and Secretaty of the State Denise Merrill as they announced that online voter registration is now available in Connecticut.

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News Release | Democracy, Financial Reform, Tax

Foreign Funds in American Elections

This week we learned that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce could be using money from foreign corporations to fund attack ads in our elections. According to reporting released by Think Progress, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, collects hundreds of thousands of dollars from foreign owned businesses, including companies owned by foreign governments. The Chamber has already run more than 8,000 attack ads and according to the Washington Post, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce “vows to spend $75 million or more on November's midterm election cycle.”

> Keep Reading
News Release | Democracy, Financial Reform

Citizen United Solution Unveiled

Senator Chuck Schumer and Representative Chris Van Hollen introduced a series of strong reforms in response to the Supreme Court’s disastrous Citizens United ruling.

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Media Hit | Democracy

A Threat to Democracy

The U.S. Supreme Court's lamentable 5-4 decision last week to sweep away a century of practice and precedent and allow torrents of corporate money to flood elections threatens to make our political system even more the playground of the rich at the expense of the average citizen.

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Citizens United Opinion Widens Corporate "Personhood" Rights

Today’s Supreme Court decision in Citizen’s United vs. Federal Election Commission will significantly expand the role that the most powerful corporations play in election financing. In a shocking burst of judicial activism, the Supreme Court decided that corporations should be treated in the same manner as ordinary citizens and be allowed to spend the massive amounts of money they accumulate on direct attack ads for or against Members of Congress.

> Keep Reading
News Release | Democracy

Court ID Decision Burden to Students

Today’s U.S. Supreme Court decision in Crawford v. Marion County Election Board upholds an Indiana state law that requires voters to present a state issued photo identification. In a 6 to 3 decision, the Court determined that voter fraud takes precedence over burdens the law places on voters. The decision is expected to place a disproportionate burden on student voters.

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