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

Gov. Brown Signs Bill to Enable Small Donor Reforms

Our elections shouldn’t be about big checks, they should be about big ideas and finding the candidate who best represents their constituents. SB 1107 opens the door for small donor empowerment programs, permitting all cities, the county and the state to use public funds establish their own campaign finance solutions. 

> Keep Reading
News Release | CALPIRG Education Fund | Democracy

New Report Highlights Opportunities to Welcome Underrepresented California Youth onto Voter Rolls

As preregistration of 16- and 17-year-olds goes live in California, we want all eligible and willing California youth added to the voter rolls on their 18th birthday, at their current address, and armed with knowledge about how to participate in elections. That’s a big undertaking that will require strategic outreach, education, and communication with youth across the state. 

> 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
Blog Post | Democracy

California Colleges Commit to Supporting Voter Engagement | Emily Rusch

Earlier this week the Secretary of State announced a groundbreaking new partnership with Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom and all three public systems of higher education to encourage eligible students to register and vote. CALPIRG Education Fund's New Voters Project is proud to have played a supporting role in the project.

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Media Hit | Democracy

Sacramento Bee Op-Ed: Bill would empower small campaign donors over special interests, megadonors

Imagine a private company is hiring new staff, but for 82% of the applicants who make it past a first round interview, the business decides to go with the wealthier job applicant. That sounds outrageous, it sounds unfair, and it certainly doesn’t sound like good practice when it comes to hiring the most qualified applicants. But that’s similar to what’s happening in American elections.

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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
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.

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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"

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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.

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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.

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Report | CALPIRG | Democracy

Auctioning Democracy

This appendix provides a detailed look at business funding for Super PACs: top business donors, Super PACs which received the most business money, and amount and number of contributions by state.

> Keep Reading
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.

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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. 

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Blog Post | Democracy

What to watch this primary day | Sarah Friedman

Today, 166 congressional primary nominations will be up for grabs -- more than any other single day this year. Big money could play a deciding role.

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Blog Post | Democracy

One graphic explains automatic voter registration | Sarah Friedman

States across the country are taking action to update their elections with automatic voter registration.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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.

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