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

Some Good News for Illinois | Abe Scarr

At a time when it seems like Springfield can't agree on anything, automatic voter registration has won bipartisan support.

> Keep Reading
News Release | Democracy

Our Statement Regarding the President’s “Commission on Election Integrity”

Read Illinois PIRG's statement on the President's establishment of an "Advisory Commission on Election Integrity."

> Keep Reading
News Release | Democracy

Illinois Senate Takes Bipartisan Step to Lessen Influence of Big Money in Elections

The Illinois Senate voted 31-23 in a bipartisan vote to lessen the influence of big money in Illinois elections by passing Senate Bill 1424. The legislation, sponsored by Senator Biss and championed by good government groups Fair Elections Illinois, Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, and Illinois Public Interest Research Group, would create a small donor matching system, wherein candidates would be eligible to receive public matching funds for small contributions by voluntarily agreeing to forgo big money and corporate contributions. A similar system has existed in New York City for decades and has been adopted by other jurisdictions in recent years.

> Keep Reading
News Release | Illinois PIRG | Democracy

Legislation will Raise the Voices of Ordinary Citizens in our Democracy

I applaud Senator Biss for introducing critical legislation to raise the voices of ordinary citizens in our democracy.

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Democracy

Call your representative and senators every day. Here's how. | Andre Delattre

There’s a lot unfolding in Washington, D.C., right now, and you may be wondering: “What can I do to voice my concerns?”

> Keep Reading

Pages

News Release | Democracy

Our Statement Regarding the President’s “Commission on Election Integrity”

Read Illinois PIRG's statement on the President's establishment of an "Advisory Commission on Election Integrity."

> Keep Reading
News Release | Democracy

Illinois Senate Takes Bipartisan Step to Lessen Influence of Big Money in Elections

The Illinois Senate voted 31-23 in a bipartisan vote to lessen the influence of big money in Illinois elections by passing Senate Bill 1424. The legislation, sponsored by Senator Biss and championed by good government groups Fair Elections Illinois, Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, and Illinois Public Interest Research Group, would create a small donor matching system, wherein candidates would be eligible to receive public matching funds for small contributions by voluntarily agreeing to forgo big money and corporate contributions. A similar system has existed in New York City for decades and has been adopted by other jurisdictions in recent years.

> Keep Reading
News Release | Illinois PIRG | Democracy

Legislation will Raise the Voices of Ordinary Citizens in our Democracy

I applaud Senator Biss for introducing critical legislation to raise the voices of ordinary citizens in our democracy.

> Keep Reading
News Release | Illinois PIRG | Democracy

Just Democracy Illinois Reaction to Governor Rauner Veto of Automatic Voter Registration

We are deeply disappointed by Governor Rauner's decision to veto bipartisan automatic voter registration legislation.

> Keep Reading
News Release | Illinois PIRG Education Fund | Democracy

New Report: County clerks’ take on Automatic Voter Registration

County clerks from across the state think automatic voter registration could mean more efficiency without adding to the budget.

> Keep Reading

Pages

Result | Democracy

Election Modernization Bill Passed

In 2015, Illinois PIRG worked to modernize Illinois’ voter registration and elections process, to make sure every eligible voter can participate in the democratic process. The year started with then-Gov. Pat Quinn signing Senate Bill 172, a sweeping elections modernization bill that will allow election day registration, expand early voting, and save taxpayers money by making voter registration at state agencies entirely electronic. Following that victory, Illinois PIRG took on a leadership role in the Just Democracy Coalition, expanding it beyond its initial five members into a more powerful and engaged coalition.

> Keep Reading
Result | Democracy

Delivering one million petitions to President Obama on dark money

U.S. PIRG joined a broad coalition to deliver one million petitions from Americans, including U.S. PIRG members and supporters, calling on President Obama to shine a light on dark money, or secret political spending.

> Keep Reading
Result | Democracy

Giving more Americans a greater voice in our elections

In our democracy, the size of your wallet shouldn’t determine the volume of your voice. In 2015, we helped win reforms in Maine and Seattle to ensure that more Americans have a greater say in our elections. Seattle’s Initiative-122 empowers small donors with “democracy vouchers” that can be donated to local candidates and lowers the cap on contributions. In Maine, the state’s Clean Elections Act was improved by strengthening campaign finance disclosure laws and offering qualifying candidates increased public funding.

> Keep Reading
Report | Illinois PIRG Education Fund | Democracy

The 21st Century Election

Automatic voter registration is this year’s hot trend in registration and administration reform. In this report, Illinois PIRG Education Fund gathers input from election officials across the state who would have a role in implementing AVR.

> Keep Reading
Report | Illinois PIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Boosting the Impact of Small Donors

This report examines how the Cook County State’s Attorney Democratic primary could be reshaped by a public financing system that amplifies the voices of small donors in our elections.

> Keep Reading
Report | Illinois PIRG Education Fund | Democracy

The Money Primary

The role of money in elections is typically discussed in the context of high profile races such as those for Congress, Governor, or big city Mayors. The influence of money in smaller races, however, is just as big if not bigger.

> Keep Reading
Report | Illinois PIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Big Money, Money from Outside Chicago, Dominates Mayoral Race

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decisions undermining campaign finance rules, most notably Citizens United v FEC, our elections have become increasingly dominated by large donors at the expense of ordinary Americans. These effects have been outsized in recent Illinois elections where campaign contribution limits have been lifted in both the gubernatorial and Chicago mayoral elections. This study examines the dominance of big donors in Chicago’s mayoral race.

> Keep Reading
Report | Illinois PIRG | Democracy

The Money Chase

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

Pages

Blog Post | Democracy

Some Good News for Illinois | Abe Scarr

At a time when it seems like Springfield can't agree on anything, automatic voter registration has won bipartisan support.

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Democracy

Call your representative and senators every day. Here's how. | Andre Delattre

There’s a lot unfolding in Washington, D.C., right now, and you may be wondering: “What can I do to voice my concerns?”

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Democracy

The growing bipartisan support for political reform in Illinois | Abe Scarr

While I am disappointed that Illinois voters won’t get the chance to weigh in this fall on the way legislative maps are drawn, I am optimistic about the growing bipartisan support building for political reform in Illinois.

> 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
Blog Post | Democracy

Automatic Voter Registration Passes Illinois Senate | Abe Scarr

Today, the Illinois State Senate passed Illinois PIRG-supported Automatic Voter Registration legislation with bi-partisan support.

> Keep Reading

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