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

Happy Birthday, Bob Dylan: Three Democracy Lessons We Learned from an American IconOlivia LutwakVania Canales-Canales

As we celebrate Dylan's 75th birthday, here's what the music icon taught us about democracy.

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Blog Post | Democracy

Panama Papers Tie Mega-Donors to Offshore Tax Loopholes | Sarah Friedman

We always knew that the big money pouring into this year's election wasn't coming from everyday Americans, but new reports reveal ties to offshore tax dodging.

> Keep Reading
News Release | U.S. PIRG | Democracy

Big Money Continues to Sweep Congressional Primaries in MD, PA

On Tuesday, candidates in Maryland and Pennsylvania competed in some of the most expensive congressional primaries yet this election cycle.

> Keep Reading
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?

> Keep Reading
Media Hit | Democracy

Los Angeles Times: Lawmakers act to shine light on California Coastal Commission, other key state boards

Widespread complaints that state commissions operate in the dark and are cozy with businesses had California lawmakers on Wednesday wrestling with a flurry of bills aimed at shedding light on the panels to regain public trust.

> Keep Reading

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News Release | CALPIRG | Democracy

CA SUPREME COURT HEARS ARGUMENTS TO DECIDE PEOPLE’S RIGHT TO INSTRUCT THEIR REPRESENTATIVES

Today, the California Supreme Court heard oral arguments on whether Californians should have the right to vote on Proposition 49—a voter instruction measure calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United.  The case, brought by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association against the State, seeks to shut down the only direct pathway Californians have to instruct their representatives and decide their future.

> Keep Reading
News Release | CALPIRG | Democracy

New Motor Voter Act Heads to the Governor’s Desk

Statement of Executive Director Emily Rusch on the passage of AB 1461, the New Motor Voter Act, which just got out of the State Assembly and heads to the governor's desk. 

> Keep Reading
News Release | CALPIRG | Democracy

Democracy Principles

This Statement of Principles for a 21st Century Democracy reflects policies already working in many parts of the country to ensure a democracy where everyone participates and everyone’s voice is heard; where everyone knows who is buying influence in our elections and government; and where politicians play by common sense rules and are held accountable with enforceable penalties to deter bad behavior. CALPIRG is asking groups and individuals sign on in support. 

> Keep Reading
News Release | CALPIRG | Democracy

Study Shows Big Donors Dominated Competitive 2014 Congressional Races

CALPIRG released new information documenting the dominance of big donors in the 2014 midterm elections, and looked ahead to see how proposed reforms could impact fundraising in the 2016 California Senate race. 

> Keep Reading
News Release | CALPIRG | Democracy

Supreme Court decision added $24.8 million in additional campaign spending by mega-donors

A small cadre of megadonors were the only ones to benefit from the Supreme Court's continued wrongheaded approach to protecting "free speech" in their McCutecheon v. FEC decision, from earlier this year. CALPIRG found that 510 large donors surpassed the $123,200 aggregate limit on giving to federal candidates that McCutcheon struck down, leading to an additional $24.8 million in big donor spending nationally. 

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Report | CALPIRG Education Fund | Budget, Democracy, Tax

Saving Dollars, Saving Democracy

Following the historic 2008 election, one lesson has been well learned:
The success of any election is utterly dependent on the resources and skills of our local and state-level election officials.

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Report | CALPIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Vanishing Voters

In 1993, Congress passed the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA). Its primary purpose was to open up the voter registration process and enhance democratic participation. The law had several aims, but among them was protecting Americans from being carelessly or purposefully excluded from voting by being improperly dropped from voting rolls.

> Keep Reading
Report | CALPIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Funding Clean Elections

The spiraling cost of campaigns, high-profile scandals and voter distrust of Congress have fueled an effort for fundamental reform of the way we fund congressional campaigns. As a result, many federal decision-makers have been working on proposals to create a Clean Elections model for publicly financing congressional campaigns. As a part of the effort to build support both within the Democratic caucus and across party lines, it is important to know how much the program will cost and options to pay for that cost.

> Keep Reading
Report | CALPIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Breaking Free With Fair Elections

Fair Elections – systems with full public financing of elections – would help improve the openness, honesty, and accountability of government. They would also free public officials to respond to the interests of voters without worrying about hurting their ability to raise money from deep-pocketed donors.

> Keep Reading
Report | CALPIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Honest Enforcement

Some argue that last year’s scandals, which led to the conviction of two congressmen and several top aides, are evidence that ethics enforcement in Congress works. The actual facts leading up to the convictions, however, are more an indictment of the current process than a testament to its success. A whistleblower who took his case to the media and the U.S. Department of Justice—not the House and Senate ethics committees—uncovered the dealings of lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

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Blog Post | Consumer Protection, Democracy

Coming together, pushing back | Jon Fox

 

Observations from the annual National Conference on Media Reform.

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Blog Post | Democracy

In The Capitol: Removing Barriers To Voting | Pedro Morillas

AB 1436—Establishes an election day registration system in California.

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Blog Post | Democracy

In The Capitol: Getting Money Out Of Politics | Pedro Morillas

SB 1426 (Blakeslee)—Bans specified gifts from lobbyist employers to legislators.

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Blog Post | Democracy

Why Target Is Still a Target | Pedro Morillas

Two years ago, the public spoke out against the Supreme Court’s decision to allow unlimited corporate spending in politics when consumers boycotted Target Corporation for controversial political spending in Minnesota’s state elections. 

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Blog Post | Budget, Consumer Protection, Democracy, Food

Tragedy reinforces need for Homeowners’ Bill of Rights | Jon Fox

Californin man's death is further evidence that big banks have failed consumers.  

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