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

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
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
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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Media Hit | Democracy

L.A.'s Prop C a step toward reforming elections: Editorial

For voters who are sickened by modern big-money politics, next month's Los Angeles city ballot contains a potential antidote.  It's a chance for Angelenos to get behind one aspect of much-needed election reform by striking back against U.S. Supreme Court rulings that have removed limits on campaign spending by corporations, labor unions and shadowy interest groups.

> Keep Reading
Media Hit | Democracy

Huffman calls for constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United ruling

A constitutional amendment to restore campaign finance laws voided by the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision topped the wish list of panelists at a forum Thursday on election reform hosted by freshman Congressman Jared Huffman.

"Amending the Constitution to overturn Citizens United may well be one of the most important issues of our time," Huffman, D-San Rafael, said at the forum at Dominican University in San Rafael. He encouraged attendees in the meantime, however, to look for additional approaches for making elections fairer and voting more accessible.

> Keep Reading
News Release | CALPIRG | Democracy

Rally Outside City Hall Calls for Constitutional Amendment

Los Angeles, CA- Angelinos gathered outside City Hall today in support of Proposition C, a ballot measure that would instruct Congress to overturn the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision. 

> Keep Reading
News Release | CALPIRG | Democracy

Los Angeles City Votes to Allow Citizens to Weigh-In on Citizens United

The Los Angeles City Council took the final step today with a 10-1 vote to put the Common Cause and CALPIRG supported measure on the ballot.

> Keep Reading
Media Hit | Democracy

Citizens United Measure for L.A. Ballot Moves Forward

The City Council preliminarily agreed today to ask Los Angeles voters in May to support an amendment to the U.S. Constitution declaring that corporations are not people -- an effort to limit their ability to influence elections.

Austin Price, field director with the California Public Interest Research Group, hailed the council's action.  "This gives citizens the opportunity to use the very tools of our democracy to reclaim it from the undue influence of big money," Price said.

> Keep Reading

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