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

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. 

> 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. 

> Keep Reading
News Release | CALPIRG | Democracy

SuperPACs and Mega-donors dominate Congressional elections

In California’s just-concluded congressional elections, bigger wallets gave mega-donors an outsized voice, according to new information released today by CALPIRG and Demos.

> 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
News Release | CALPIRG | Democracy

California House Races Dominated by Big Money

As the vast majority of campaign contributions continue to come from large donors, CALPIRG is working with Congressional policymakers to pass the Government by the People Act (HR 20) and other campaign finance reforms to empower small donors and get big money out of politics.

> Keep Reading

Pages

News Release | CALPIRG | Democracy

Los Angeles City Votes to Allow Citizens to Weigh-In on Citizens United

The Los Angeles City Council took the final step today with a 10-1 vote to put the Common Cause and CALPIRG supported measure on the ballot.

> Keep Reading
Media Hit | Democracy

Citizens United Measure for L.A. Ballot Moves Forward

The City Council preliminarily agreed today to ask Los Angeles voters in May to support an amendment to the U.S. Constitution declaring that corporations are not people -- an effort to limit their ability to influence elections.

Austin Price, field director with the California Public Interest Research Group, hailed the council's action.  "This gives citizens the opportunity to use the very tools of our democracy to reclaim it from the undue influence of big money," Price said.

> Keep Reading
News Release | CALPIRG | Democracy

Initiative Targeting Big Money in Elections One Step Closer to Being on L.A. Ballot In May

The L.A. City Council took one more step today to put the CALPIRG and Common Cause supported measure on the ballot.  This means Angelenos would see this question on the ballot in May:

Shall the Voters adopt a resolution that there should be limits on political campaign spending and that corporations should not have the constitutional rights of human beings and instruct Los Angeles elected officials and area legislative representatives to promote that policy through amendments to the United States Constitution?

> Keep Reading
News Release | CALPIRG Education Fund | Budget, Democracy, Tax

California Cities Are Nation’s Best & Worst for Spending Transparency

New report reviews and grades the nation’s thirty largest cities on how effectively they allow the public to track budgets, contracting, subsidies, grants and requests for quality-of-life services.

> Keep Reading
News Release | CALPIRG | Democracy

Los Angeles Moves Ahead to Get Money Out of Politics

L.A. City Council voted to move ahead with an initiative for the May ballot that would allow voters to weigh-in on the unlimited campaign spending that is a result of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision.

> Keep Reading

Pages

View AllRSS Feed

Join Our Call

Tell your representative to stand up for our democracy, and amplify the voices of small donors in our elections.

Support Us

Your donation supports CALPIRG’s work to stand up for consumers on the issues that matter, especially when powerful interests are blocking progress.

Consumer Alerts

Join our network and stay up to date on our campaigns, get important consumer updates and take action on critical issues.
Optional Member Code