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
News Release | CALPIRG | Democracy

Gov. Brown Signs Bill to Enable Small Donor Reforms

Our elections shouldn’t be about big checks, they should be about big ideas and finding the candidate who best represents their constituents. SB 1107 opens the door for small donor empowerment programs, permitting all cities, the county and the state to use public funds establish their own campaign finance solutions. 

> Keep Reading
News Release | CALPIRG Education Fund | Democracy

New Report Highlights Opportunities to Welcome Underrepresented California Youth onto Voter Rolls

As preregistration of 16- and 17-year-olds goes live in California, we want all eligible and willing California youth added to the voter rolls on their 18th birthday, at their current address, and armed with knowledge about how to participate in elections. That’s a big undertaking that will require strategic outreach, education, and communication with youth across the state. 

> Keep Reading
Report | CALPIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Path to the Polls

Starting in the fall of 2016, 16- and 17-year-olds in California will be allowed to “preregister” to vote, ensuring that they are listed on the voter rolls the moment they turn 18. Voter preregistration provides California with an opportunity to improve young voter participation, but state and local officials must take proactive steps in order to make preregistration a success.

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Democracy

California Colleges Commit to Supporting Voter Engagement | Emily Rusch

Earlier this week the Secretary of State announced a groundbreaking new partnership with Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom and all three public systems of higher education to encourage eligible students to register and vote. CALPIRG Education Fund's New Voters Project is proud to have played a supporting role in the project.

> Keep Reading

Pages

News Release | CALPIRG | Democracy

Gov. Brown Signs Bill to Enable Small Donor Reforms

Our elections shouldn’t be about big checks, they should be about big ideas and finding the candidate who best represents their constituents. SB 1107 opens the door for small donor empowerment programs, permitting all cities, the county and the state to use public funds establish their own campaign finance solutions. 

> Keep Reading
News Release | CALPIRG Education Fund | Democracy

New Report Highlights Opportunities to Welcome Underrepresented California Youth onto Voter Rolls

As preregistration of 16- and 17-year-olds goes live in California, we want all eligible and willing California youth added to the voter rolls on their 18th birthday, at their current address, and armed with knowledge about how to participate in elections. That’s a big undertaking that will require strategic outreach, education, and communication with youth across the state. 

> Keep Reading
Media Hit | Democracy

Sacramento Bee Op-Ed: Bill would empower small campaign donors over special interests, megadonors

Imagine a private company is hiring new staff, but for 82% of the applicants who make it past a first round interview, the business decides to go with the wealthier job applicant. That sounds outrageous, it sounds unfair, and it certainly doesn’t sound like good practice when it comes to hiring the most qualified applicants. But that’s similar to what’s happening in American elections.

> Keep Reading
News Release | CALPIRG | Democracy

CALPIRG Statement on The Overturn Citizens United Act

We are thrilled that California voters will be able to go on record this fall and formally instruct our representatives to overturn Citizens United and get big money out of politics. 

> Keep Reading
News Release | CALPIRG | Democracy

Local and National Democracy Advocates Urge Governor Brown to Sign the Overturn Citizens United Act

Today the California Senate passed SB 254 The Overturn Citizens United Act in a 26 to 11 vote.  The bill now goes to Governor Jerry Brown's desk. SB 254 would place a voter instruction on the November ballot that would ask Californians if their representatives should “use all of their constitutional authority…to overturn Citizens United v. FEC and other applicable judicial precedents.”

> Keep Reading

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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
Result | Democracy

Removing Barriers to Voter Registration

In 2015 CALPIRG supported the passage of the New Motor Voter Act, legislation that will create an easy, automated way to complete or update your voter registration when you get a driver’s license or state ID card at the Department of Motor Vehicles. 

> Keep Reading
Result | Democracy

CALPIRG Helps Register 40,000 New Voters

In 2012, CALPIRG worked with college campuses across the state to ensure that both online and paper voter registration options were made available to students. Through our outreach, we helped to register more than 40,000 young Californians to vote.

> Keep Reading
Result | Democracy

Legislature Passes Resolution Against Citizens United

More than 50,000 Californians, many of them CALPIRG members, joined our call to put our state on record in opposition to the Supreme Court ruling that opened the floodgates to a torrent of Super PAC-fueled campaign spending. The California Legislature passed our resolution — joining more than a dozen other states — calling for a constitutional amendment that would overturn the Citizens United decision.

> Keep Reading

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Report | CALPIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Path to the Polls

Starting in the fall of 2016, 16- and 17-year-olds in California will be allowed to “preregister” to vote, ensuring that they are listed on the voter rolls the moment they turn 18. Voter preregistration provides California with an opportunity to improve young voter participation, but state and local officials must take proactive steps in order to make preregistration a success.

> Keep Reading
Report | CALPIRG | Democracy

The Cost of Running for US Senate in California

A comparison of fundraising practices for a U.S. Senate seat in California under current law and how fundraising could change if the Fair Elections Now Act became law.

> Keep Reading
Report | CALPIRG | Democracy

The Money Chase: Moving from Big Donor Dominance in the 2014 Midterms to a Small Donor Democracy

Five years after the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. FEC decision, what are the roles of large donors and average voters in selecting and supporting candidates for Congress? This report examines the role of money in the 2014 congressional elections from both quantitative and qualitative perspectives, and demonstrates how matching small political contributions with limited public funds can change the campaign landscape for grassroots candidates.

> Keep Reading
Report | CALPIRG 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 | CALPIRG 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

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

California Colleges Commit to Supporting Voter Engagement | Emily Rusch

Earlier this week the Secretary of State announced a groundbreaking new partnership with Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom and all three public systems of higher education to encourage eligible students to register and vote. CALPIRG Education Fund's New Voters Project is proud to have played a supporting role in the project.

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Democracy

Five things you need to know about gray money | Sarah Friedman

Since the 2010 Citizens United ruling, we've heard about Super PACs able to spend unlimited amounts on our elections while obscuring the sources of the cash. Now, their tactics are getting even more creative.

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Democracy

Five Ways Big Money Changed Since our Last Race for the White House | Samantha Garzillo

Today, the influence of big money in our elections continues to grow. This year, we see more super PACs, more secret money, and a smaller handful donors able to fund a larger share of the election. But you don’t have to take our word for it, just take a look at the numbers. Here are five of the biggest changes we’ve seen over the past four years in campaign fundraising.

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Democracy

The Five Worst Election Disasters of 2016 | Nick Kauzlarich

As the election cycle heats up, barriers to the polls are becoming a serious problem to more and more voters across the country. Whether it’s waiting five hours in line just to cast a vote or delaying local elections due to gerrymandering, voters have been prevented from taking part in our democracy this primary season. Here are the five worst election disasters of 2016. 

> Keep Reading

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