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

Blog Post | Democracy

Call your representative and senators every day. Here's how. | Andre Delattre

There’s a lot unfolding in Washington, D.C., right now, and you may be wondering: “What can I do to voice my concerns?”

> 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
Result | Democracy

Delivering one million petitions to President Obama on dark money

U.S. PIRG joined a broad coalition to deliver one million petitions from Americans, including U.S. PIRG members and supporters, calling on President Obama to shine a light on dark money, or secret political spending.

> Keep Reading
Result | Democracy

Giving more Americans a greater voice in our elections

In our democracy, the size of your wallet shouldn’t determine the volume of your voice. In 2015, we helped win reforms in Maine and Seattle to ensure that more Americans have a greater say in our elections. Seattle’s Initiative-122 empowers small donors with “democracy vouchers” that can be donated to local candidates and lowers the cap on contributions. In Maine, the state’s Clean Elections Act was improved by strengthening campaign finance disclosure laws and offering qualifying candidates increased public funding.

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

Boosting the Impact of Small Donors

What if our campaign finance system encouraged candidates to raise money from everyday citizens making small contributions? This report examines how the 2016 fundraising picture would look if a small donor campaign finance system were in place, where small contributions were matched with limited public funds for candidates who agree to turn down large contributions.

> Keep Reading

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News Release | PennPIRG | Democracy

ON DAY OF ORAL ARGUMENT IN MCCUTCHEON V. FEC, GROUPS GATHER TO PUSH BACK ON BIG MONEY IN POLITICS, DEMAND SOLUTIONS

Today PennPIRG, The Sierra Club, UFCW 1776 Local, Common Cause, Philly Rootstrikers, WolfPAC, JustLaws, and State Representative Mark Cohen gathered at the James A. Byrne Courthouse to push back on the power of big money in elections, as the U.S. Supreme Court today heard oral arguments in McCutcheon v. FEC. Advocates say the case would further increase the electoral clout of a few large donors.

> Keep Reading
News Release | PennPIRG | Democracy

New Report Shows Impact of Big Money in the 2012 Election

32 Super PAC Mega-Donors Match Total Giving of 3.7 Million Presidential Campaign Small Donors; Nearly Half of TV Ads in Presidential Race Funded by “Dark Money”

> Keep Reading
News Release | PennPIRG | Democracy

Philadelphia Organizations, Citizens, and Elected Officials Hold Press Conference and Rally to Overturn Citizens United

Today at a press conference and rally, a diverse coalition of more than 20 organizations, elected officials, faith groups, and citizens gathered at LOVE Park and braved the cold to mark the third anniversary of the Citizens United court decision and call for the reversal of a big money system that favors powerful special interests over the public interest.

> Keep Reading
News Release | PennPIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Vast Majority of PA College IDs Not Valid for Voting

April 12, PHILADELPHIA - A recent study released today by PennPIRG and a broad coalition of voter protection groups found that Pennsylvania’s new photo ID voting law could potentially disenfranchise more than 80% of the state’s college students. 

 

> Keep Reading

Pages

Result | Democracy

Delivering one million petitions to President Obama on dark money

U.S. PIRG joined a broad coalition to deliver one million petitions from Americans, including U.S. PIRG members and supporters, calling on President Obama to shine a light on dark money, or secret political spending.

> Keep Reading
Result | Democracy

Giving more Americans a greater voice in our elections

In our democracy, the size of your wallet shouldn’t determine the volume of your voice. In 2015, we helped win reforms in Maine and Seattle to ensure that more Americans have a greater say in our elections. Seattle’s Initiative-122 empowers small donors with “democracy vouchers” that can be donated to local candidates and lowers the cap on contributions. In Maine, the state’s Clean Elections Act was improved by strengthening campaign finance disclosure laws and offering qualifying candidates increased public funding.

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

Boosting the Impact of Small Donors

What if our campaign finance system encouraged candidates to raise money from everyday citizens making small contributions? This report examines how the 2016 fundraising picture would look if a small donor campaign finance system were in place, where small contributions were matched with limited public funds for candidates who agree to turn down large contributions.

> Keep Reading
Report | PennPIRG 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 | PennPIRG 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 | PennPIRG, PennEnvironment | Democracy

Elections for Shale

Fracking corporation EQT and the rest of the industry spend millions on electoral politics at the state and federal level, elevating their interests and making it more difficult for ordinary citizens to have their voices heard. Concurrently, the industry exploits loopholes to pay extremely low taxes, receives thousands of permits to drill on public lands, and is exempted from many basic environmental standards.

> Keep Reading

Pages

Blog Post | Democracy

Call your representative and senators every day. Here's how. | Andre Delattre

There’s a lot unfolding in Washington, D.C., right now, and you may be wondering: “What can I do to voice my concerns?”

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Democracy

MAKING SUPER PACS ILLEGAL | Alana Miller

A new Washington Post- ABC News poll 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. Super PACs are not responsible for all problems with American democracy, however, they do amplify those troubles so it is no surprise that the public is crying out in opposition to them.

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Democracy

Corporations that Spend More on Lobbying than Taxes | Phineas Baxandall

Two years ago the Supreme Court's misguided Citizens United decision struck down long-standing Congressional limits on the political power of large corporations by vastly expanding the legal metaphor that "corporations are people." Now there is fresh evidence that corporate influence over Congress makes it easy for those same corporations to avoid their civic duty of paying taxes.

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Democracy

Reducing political access of powerful interests

The new Congress deserves credit for quickly and strongly responding to the scandals of last year by passing sweeping changes to the rules that will reduce the special access of wealthy and powerful interests in Washington.  It was a critical first step. We now urge you to finish the job by supporting legislation that will ensure that the new rules will be adequately enforced.  Today, we ask you to be a co-sponsor legislation introduced by Sens. Lieberman, Collins and Obama to enforce the rules.

> Keep Reading
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