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

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. 

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Blog Post | Democracy

What to watch this primary day | Sarah Friedman

Today, 166 congressional primary nominations will be up for grabs -- more than any other single day this year. Big money could play a deciding role.

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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.”

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Blog Post | Democracy

One graphic explains automatic voter registration | Sarah Friedman

States across the country are taking action to update their elections with automatic voter registration.

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News Release | CALPIRG | Democracy

Californians Will Vote on Whether to Overturn Citizens United

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – The California Supreme Court issued a ruling today to restore Proposition 49 to the ballot. Californians will have the chance to instruct Congress to pass a constitutional amendment that would limit campaign spending and establish that only human beings (and not corporations) enjoy constitutional rights.

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

New Study: Small Donor Matching Program Would Incentivize Shift in 2016 Presidential Fundraising Strategies

Candidates in the 2016 presidential race could see a dramatic shift in fundraising under a small donor empowerment program, according to a new study by U.S. PIRG Education Fund

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Media Hit | Democracy

NPR: California Becomes 2nd State To Automatically Register Voters

CALPIRG's Emily Rusch thinks the new motor voter law will likely have the greatest impact on young millennials. She said only 52 percent of the state's residents ages 18 to 24 were registered to vote before the midterm election. "That means nearly that over half of eligible youth are just being left out entirely of the process," Rusch said.

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News Release | CALPIRG | Democracy

California's New Motor Voter Act Signed into Law

Executive Director Emily Rusch's statement when Governor Jerry Brown signed AB 1461, the New Motor Voter Act, into law. The bill will automate voter registration at the Department of Motor Vehicles, helping to reduce low voter registration rates in California and increase participation in our elections. 

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Media Hit | Democracy

Los Angeles Times: Gov. Brown approves automatic voter registration for Californians

Voting rights activists, including CalPIRG Executive Director Emily Rusch, said the voter registration bill was much-needed medicine for a system that is ailing. "A well-functioning democracy depends on the participation of its citizens," Rusch said, noting that the registration gap is most severe for young people.

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Report | CALPIRG | Democracy

Auctioning Democracy

Dēmos and U.S. PIRG Education Fund analysis of Federal Election Commission data on Super PACs from their advent in 2010 through the end of 2011 reveals the following:

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Report | CALPIRG | Budget, Democracy, Tax

Representation Without Taxation

Marking the second anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission case—which opened the floodgates to corporate spending on elections—this report takes a hard look at the lobbying activities of profitable Fortune 500 companies that exploit loopholes and distort the tax code to avoid billions
of dollars in taxes.

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Report | CALPIRG Education Fund | Budget, Democracy, Financial Reform, Tax

Tax Increment Financing: The need for transparency and accountibility in local economic development subsidies

Tax-increment financing (TIF) has been a widely used tool for municipalities seeking private investment. TIF allows cities and towns to borrow against an area’s future tax revenues in order to invest in immediate projects or encourage present development. When used properly, TIF can promote enduring growth and stronger communities for blighted neighborhoods; but TIF can also end up wasting taxpayer resources or channeling money to politically favored special interests.

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Report | CALPIRG | Budget, Democracy, Tax

Following the Money 2011:

This report is U.S. PIRG Education Fund’s second annual ranking of states’ progress toward “Transparency 2.0” – a new standard of comprehensive, one-stop, one-click budget accountability and accessibility. The past year has seen continued progress, with new states providing online access to government spending information and several states pioneering new tools to further expand citizens’ access to spending information and engagement with government. 

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Report | CALPIRG Education Fund | Budget, Democracy

California Budget Transparency 2.0

The ability to see how government uses the public purse is fundamental to democracy.  Budget transparency checks corruption, bolsters public confidence in government, and promotes fiscal responsibility. 

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Blog Post | Democracy

U.S. PIRG's Top 5 Change-Makers

This week, Time Magazine came out with its annual Top 100 Most Influential People list, but what about the men and women who made a difference for regular Americans on the issues facing all of us?

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Blog Post | Public Health, Consumer Protection, Democracy, Food, Transportation

State of the Union: Five Things We’ll Be Listening For | Chris MacKenzie

President Obama has hyped his final State of the Union address as a speech that will help to define his legacy. Here's how he can break new ground.

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Blog Post | Democracy

Three ways you can join the fight against big-money politics

We're still a year away from the 2016 presidential election, but we've already seen massive fundraising numbers coming from Super PACs and outside groups. Here are a few ways you can fight big money politics right now.

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Blog Post | Democracy

Let the People Vote on Prop 49 | Emily Rusch

Today CALPIRG called on the California Supreme Court to put Prop 49 back on the ballot in November 2016. Prop 49 is a voter instruction measure calling on our elected officials to overturn Citizens United and reduce the influence of big money in politics. 

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Blog Post | Democracy

California New Motor Voter Law Clears First Two Committees | Emily Rusch

Earlier this week AB 1461 (Gonzalez), passed out of both the Assembly Transportation Committee and the Assembly Elections Committee. The legislation would update existing California's Motor Voter Law to automatically register eligible Californians to vote unless they decide to opt out. CALPIRG supports the legislation, which is strongly backed by Secretary of State Alex Padilla. 

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