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

Same-day voter registration passes in California

The next time you move to a new home, you may be able to register to vote and cast a ballot on the same day, thanks to CALPIRG-backed legislation.

> Keep Reading
News Release | CALPIRG | Democracy

Same-Day Voter Registration Bill Heads to Governor's Desk

Yesterday California legislature gave final approval to a bill that would require all precinct polling locations to offer same-day voter registration. In 2018, most counties only offered one same-day voter registration location in the entire county. SB 72 (Umberg) now heads to Gov. Newsom’s desk for his signature. 

> Keep Reading
Report | CALPIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Highway Boondoggles 5

Year after year, state and local governments propose billions of dollars’ worth of new and expanded highways that often do little to reduce congestion or address real transportation challenges, while diverting scarce funding from infrastructure repairs and key transportation priorities. Our 5th annual Highway Boondoggles report features the proposed High Desert Freeway east of Los Angeles. This $8 billion project would lead to more driving and more pollution, along with sprawling desert development.

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Democracy

CALPIRG's 2019 Legislative Agenda offers steps to a healthier, more democratic California

California made strides for our health, our environment and consumer rights this past year. But there's always more to do and CALPIRG has some ideas...

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Democracy

CALPIRG's New Voters Project Helped Turn Out Youth Vote | Emily Rusch

CALPIRG Education Fund’s New Voters Project ensured that thousands of newly eligible young voters registered to vote, received non-partisan information about what was on their ballot, and cast a ballot by Election Day. In total, our team helped register more than 6,000 students to vote and made more than 500,000 Get out the Vote contacts. Here are our highlights, lowlights, and recommendations for future elections.

> Keep Reading

Pages

News Release | CALPIRG | Democracy

Same-Day Voter Registration Bill Heads to Governor's Desk

Yesterday California legislature gave final approval to a bill that would require all precinct polling locations to offer same-day voter registration. In 2018, most counties only offered one same-day voter registration location in the entire county. SB 72 (Umberg) now heads to Gov. Newsom’s desk for his signature. 

> Keep Reading
News Release | CALPIRG | Democracy

Good Government Groups Unite Against AB 84

A group of California’s major good government organizations, including CALPIRG, announced their joint opposition to AB 84 today and urged California senators to put a brick on the bill before it fast-tracks a flood of special interest campaign donations to legislative leaders.

> Keep Reading
News Release | CALPIRG | Democracy

Gov. Brown Signs the California Disclose Act

Political advertisements will more clearly reveal their top funders under AB 249, the California Disclose Act authored by Assemblymember Kevin Mullin, which Gov. Brown signed today.

> Keep Reading
News Release | CALPIRG | Democracy

California Legislature sends “The California Disclose Act” to the Governor’s desk

Political advertisements will more clearly share their top funders under AB 249, the California Disclose Act authored by Assemblymember Kevin Mullin, which passed out of the Assembly on Friday and heads to the Governor’s desk.

> Keep Reading
News Release | Democracy

Our Statement Regarding the President’s “Commission on Election Integrity”

Read CALPIRG's statement on the President's establishment of an "Advisory Commission on Election Integrity."

> 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
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

Pages

Report | CALPIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Highway Boondoggles 5

Year after year, state and local governments propose billions of dollars’ worth of new and expanded highways that often do little to reduce congestion or address real transportation challenges, while diverting scarce funding from infrastructure repairs and key transportation priorities. Our 5th annual Highway Boondoggles report features the proposed High Desert Freeway east of Los Angeles. This $8 billion project would lead to more driving and more pollution, along with sprawling desert development.

> 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
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

Pages

Blog Post | Democracy

Same-day voter registration passes in California

The next time you move to a new home, you may be able to register to vote and cast a ballot on the same day, thanks to CALPIRG-backed legislation.

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Democracy

CALPIRG's 2019 Legislative Agenda offers steps to a healthier, more democratic California

California made strides for our health, our environment and consumer rights this past year. But there's always more to do and CALPIRG has some ideas...

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Democracy

CALPIRG's New Voters Project Helped Turn Out Youth Vote | Emily Rusch

CALPIRG Education Fund’s New Voters Project ensured that thousands of newly eligible young voters registered to vote, received non-partisan information about what was on their ballot, and cast a ballot by Election Day. In total, our team helped register more than 6,000 students to vote and made more than 500,000 Get out the Vote contacts. Here are our highlights, lowlights, and recommendations for future elections.

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Democracy

AB 84 Could Increase Big Money in Politics | Emily Rusch

In early July, Assemblymember Kevin Mullin rewrote his Assembly Bill 84 to amend the Political Reform Act to expand opportunities for really wealthy donors to give directly to political campaigns. Taryn Luna from the Sacramento Bee wrote the first substantive story about the bill a few days later. As I told her for the story, "Rules that allow these really large contributions end up reducing the influence of average Californians in the process. Democracy should be for all of us, not the very few." Here's CALPIRG's official letter of opposition to the bill.

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Democracy

Don't Forget to Register and Vote! | Emily Rusch

Today is the last day to register to vote before the June primary! Recent policy changes backed by CALPIRG have helped modernize our elections and remove unecessary barriers to voting. Now voter registration rates are they highest they've been in 64 years!

> Keep Reading

Pages

Blog Post | Democracy

Same-day voter registration passes in California

The next time you move to a new home, you may be able to register to vote and cast a ballot on the same day, thanks to CALPIRG-backed legislation.

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Democracy

CALPIRG's 2019 Legislative Agenda offers steps to a healthier, more democratic California

California made strides for our health, our environment and consumer rights this past year. But there's always more to do and CALPIRG has some ideas...

> Keep Reading
Blog Post

The next time you move to a new home, you may be able to register to vote and cast a ballot on the same day, thanks to CALPIRG-backed legislation.

News Release | CALPIRG

Yesterday California legislature gave final approval to a bill that would require all precinct polling locations to offer same-day voter registration. In 2018, most counties only offered one same-day voter registration location in the entire county. SB 72 (Umberg) now heads to Gov. Newsom’s desk for his signature. 

Report | CALPIRG Education Fund

Year after year, state and local governments propose billions of dollars’ worth of new and expanded highways that often do little to reduce congestion or address real transportation challenges, while diverting scarce funding from infrastructure repairs and key transportation priorities. Our 5th annual Highway Boondoggles report features the proposed High Desert Freeway east of Los Angeles. This $8 billion project would lead to more driving and more pollution, along with sprawling desert development.

Blog Post

California made strides for our health, our environment and consumer rights this past year. But there's always more to do and CALPIRG has some ideas...

Blog Post

CALPIRG Education Fund’s New Voters Project ensured that thousands of newly eligible young voters registered to vote, received non-partisan information about what was on their ballot, and cast a ballot by Election Day. In total, our team helped register more than 6,000 students to vote and made more than 500,000 Get out the Vote contacts. Here are our highlights, lowlights, and recommendations for future elections.

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