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

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.

> Keep Reading
News Release | CALPIRG | Democracy

Local and National Democracy Advocates Urge Governor Brown to Sign the Overturn Citizens United Act

Today the California Senate passed SB 254 The Overturn Citizens United Act in a 26 to 11 vote.  The bill now goes to Governor Jerry Brown's desk. SB 254 would place a voter instruction on the November ballot that would ask Californians if their representatives should “use all of their constitutional authority…to overturn Citizens United v. FEC and other applicable judicial precedents.”

> Keep Reading
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.

> Keep Reading
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.

> Keep Reading

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News Release | CALPIRG | Democracy

New Motor Voter Act Heads to the Governor’s Desk

Statement of Executive Director Emily Rusch on the passage of AB 1461, the New Motor Voter Act, which just got out of the State Assembly and heads to the governor's desk. 

> Keep Reading
News Release | CALPIRG | Democracy

Democracy Principles

This Statement of Principles for a 21st Century Democracy reflects policies already working in many parts of the country to ensure a democracy where everyone participates and everyone’s voice is heard; where everyone knows who is buying influence in our elections and government; and where politicians play by common sense rules and are held accountable with enforceable penalties to deter bad behavior. CALPIRG is asking groups and individuals sign on in support. 

> Keep Reading
News Release | CALPIRG | Democracy

Study Shows Big Donors Dominated Competitive 2014 Congressional Races

CALPIRG released new information documenting the dominance of big donors in the 2014 midterm elections, and looked ahead to see how proposed reforms could impact fundraising in the 2016 California Senate race. 

> 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

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

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Report | CALPIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Honest Enforcement

Some argue that last year’s scandals, which led to the conviction of two congressmen and several top aides, are evidence that ethics enforcement in Congress works. The actual facts leading up to the convictions, however, are more an indictment of the current process than a testament to its success. A whistleblower who took his case to the media and the U.S. Department of Justice—not the House and Senate ethics committees—uncovered the dealings of lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

> Keep Reading
Report | CALPIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Look Who's Not Coming to Washington 2005

Large contributions made by a small fraction of Americans unduly influence who runs for office and who wins elections in the United States. Without personal wealth or access to networks of wealthy contributors, many qualified and credible candidates are locked out of contention for federal office—often before voters have the opportunity to register their preferences or hear competing points of view.

> Keep Reading
Report | CALPIRG | Democracy

Tying the Hands of States

States have long been the laboratories for innovative public policy, particularly in the realm of environmental and consumer protection. State and local legislatures, smaller and often more nimble than the federal government, can develop and test novel policies to address problems identified by local constituents. If a certain policy works, other states can try it. If the policy fails, the state or local government can quickly modify the policy without having affected residents in all 50 states. Success at the state level then often gives rise to federal policy.

> Keep Reading
Report | CALPIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Contribution Limits And Competitiveness

For years, academics, political theorists, and campaign finance reformers have debated the causal relationship between campaign contribution limits and the outcome of elections. Some argue that limiting campaign contributions amounts to "incumbent protection;" others contend that limits make challengers more competitive. This study is the first of its kind to comprehensively examine the states with contribution limits and empirically measure changes in competitiveness.

> Keep Reading
Report | CALPIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Election, Inc.

The presence of corporate money in California politics is one of the biggest challenges facing our democracy. The federal government has long realized that corporations, as fundamentally economic institutions, have no place in the political process. Corporate contributions to federal candidates were banned in 1907.

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Blog Post | Democracy

In The Capitol: Removing Barriers To Voting | Pedro Morillas

AB 1436—Establishes an election day registration system in California.

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Democracy

In The Capitol: Getting Money Out Of Politics | Pedro Morillas

SB 1426 (Blakeslee)—Bans specified gifts from lobbyist employers to legislators.

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Democracy

Why Target Is Still a Target | Pedro Morillas

Two years ago, the public spoke out against the Supreme Court’s decision to allow unlimited corporate spending in politics when consumers boycotted Target Corporation for controversial political spending in Minnesota’s state elections. 

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Budget, Consumer Protection, Democracy, Food

Tragedy reinforces need for Homeowners’ Bill of Rights | Jon Fox

Californin man's death is further evidence that big banks have failed consumers.  

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Democracy

Senate Elections Committee Testimony on AJR 22 | Pedro Morillas

AJR 22 is an important message and an important opportunity to get the public to coalesce behind a concrete solution to the problems created by the Supreme Court’s misstep in the Citizens United case two years ago.

> Keep Reading

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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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