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

Today Supreme Court Ruled for Another Flood of Big Money

The Supreme Court's McCutcheon v. FEC decision could add $1 billion from big donors through 2020.

> Keep Reading
News Release | CALPIRG | Democracy

CALPIRG Applauds the Introduction of the Government by the People Act

The Government By the People Act (H.R. 20), introduced today, would allow candidates to run competitive campaigns for office by relying on small dollar donors. Seventeen California representatives are original co-sponsors of the bill. 

> Keep Reading
Media Hit | Democracy

Students Rally Against Citizens United

The California Public Interest Research Group and Rep. Scott Peters (D-San Diego.) held a rally at Warren Mall on Jan. 21, where they spoke in favor of overturning Citizens United. Representatives from Money out of Politics and Common Cause, two grassroots organizations, were also invited to speak.

> Keep Reading
Report | CALPIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Billion-Dollar Democracy

The first presidential election since Citizens United lived up to its hype, with unprecedented outside spending from new sources making headlines.

Demos and U.S. PIRG analysis of reports from campaigns, parties, and outside spenders to the Federal Election Commission found that our big money system distorts democracy and creates clear winners and losers:

> Keep Reading
News Release | CALPIRG | Democracy

Google’s Lack of Political Spending Transparency Threatens Brand, Hurts Democracy

Google Inc.’s lack of transparency in its political spending and its membership in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce pose a threat both to Google’s brand as well as to our democracy, according to letters sent this week by shareholders and citizen groups to Google’s board of directors.

> Keep Reading

Pages

ABC 7: Does a ballot initiative put your identity at risk?

Does signing a ballot initiative put your identity at risk? Ballot initiatives seem to always be circulating and we are often asked to add our signature, so should we be concerned?

> Keep Reading
News Release | CALPIRG | Democracy

Bill Allowing Online Voter Registration Clears Assembly

Legislation pushing the state to allow online voter registration in time for the 2012 election passed the California State Assembly today.

> Keep Reading

The San Diego Union Tribune: Dirty politics masquerading as consumer protection

“Ugh. I just got back from the supermarket, and those pushy signature gatherers are back!”

> Keep Reading
Media Hit | Democracy

The Bakersfield Californian: EDITORIAL: Political gift-taking stains state's legislative process

If politicians are convinced that they are in no way swayed by gifts of tickets, travel and swag bestowed by lobbyists in a never-ending Christmas morning of influence-peddling, good for them. We aren't.

> Keep Reading
Media Hit | Democracy

The Los Angeles Times: Trips, tickets and golf for California lawmakers highlight laxity of ethics rules

Trips to Spain and Argentina, choice Lakers tickets, gourmet meals and rounds of golf are among the $637,000 in gifts that elected state officials accepted last year, many from companies and groups that lobby in Sacramento.

> Keep Reading

Pages

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.

Blog Post

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.

News Release | CALPIRG

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.

Blog Post

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!

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