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

Five things you need to know about gray money | Sarah Friedman

Since the 2010 Citizens United ruling, we've heard about Super PACs able to spend unlimited amounts on our elections while obscuring the sources of the cash. Now, their tactics are getting even more creative.

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Democracy

Five Ways Big Money Changed Since our Last Race for the White House | Samantha Garzillo

Today, the influence of big money in our elections continues to grow. This year, we see more super PACs, more secret money, and a smaller handful donors able to fund a larger share of the election. But you don’t have to take our word for it, just take a look at the numbers. Here are five of the biggest changes we’ve seen over the past four years in campaign fundraising.

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Democracy

The Five Worst Election Disasters of 2016 | Nick Kauzlarich

As the election cycle heats up, barriers to the polls are becoming a serious problem to more and more voters across the country. Whether it’s waiting five hours in line just to cast a vote or delaying local elections due to gerrymandering, voters have been prevented from taking part in our democracy this primary season. Here are the five worst election disasters of 2016. 

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Democracy

Six Twitter users to follow for all things democracy

This election cycle news about money in politics, election fiascos and voting rights is breaking at the speed of, well, Twitter. If you want to stay up-to-date, we’ve got your back.

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

Movement to Fight Big Money Sets Sights on State, Local, and Federal Reforms in 2016

On Monday, U.S. PIRG and a coalition of six national organizations released “Our Voices, Our Democracy: Victories Since Citizens United and the Road Ahead Empowering Voters Over Wealthy Special Interests"

> Keep Reading
News Release | CALPIRG | Democracy

CA Legislature to the Supreme Court: Let Californians Vote on Whether to Overturn Citizens United

As presidential candidates race to raise money for their campaign coffers, the need to limit the influence of extremely wealthy and corporate donors in our elections is clearer than ever. At the urging of their constituents, the legislature put Prop 49 on the ballot back in 2014, and we are counting on the legislature to do whatever it takes to allow Californians to hold a vote on the 2016 ballot.

> Keep Reading
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.

> Keep Reading
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

> Keep Reading

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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:

> Keep Reading
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.

> Keep Reading
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.

> Keep Reading
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. 

> Keep Reading
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

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
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
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.

> Keep Reading
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. 

> Keep Reading

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