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

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
News Release | Illinois PIRG | Democracy

Illinois can Build a Better Politics Through Automatic Voter Registration, Campaign Finance Reform

President Obama came to Springfield today because he knows building a better politics starts at the state and local level. Our democracy works best when everyone participates, and Illinois has multiple opportunities this year to empower voters and strengthen our democracy.

> 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
Blog Post | Democracy

California becomes second state to adopt Automatic Voter Registration | Abe Scarr

California Governor Jerry Brown signed AB1461 today, making California the second state to adopt Automatic Voter Registration.

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Pages

News Release | Illinois PIRG | Consumer Protection, Democracy

Illinois PIRG Condemns Backdoor, Backroom “Cromnibus” Proposals to gut Wall Street and Campaign Finance Reforms

As Congress considers the “Cromnibus,” Illinois PIRG decried two special interest provisions snuck into the bill and called on the Illinois Congressional Delegation to reject any bill that includes those provisions.

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News Release | Illinois PIRG | Democracy

Attorney General Madigan, Good Government & Media Organizations Oppose Measure to Make Illinois Government Less Transparent

A coalition of good government and media organizations joined Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan Monday in voicing strong opposition to a recently introduced measure in the Illinois General Assembly that would significantly weaken the state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The measure, introduced last Tuesday, would expand the ability of a government body to withhold information from the public, and make it harder for citizens to use the legal system when a government body is violating transparency laws.

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

Big Money Playing an Outsized Role in Illinois Elections

In this year’s campaigns, bigger wallets give a small set of mega-donors an outsized voice, according to new information released today by Illinois PIRG Education Fund and Demos.

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News Release | Illinois PIRG | Democracy

Statement on today’s Senate vote on the constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United

Today’s vote was an incredible milestone in the fight to reclaim our democracy. The Citizens United decision unleashed a tide of big money from mega-donors and super PACs into our elections, which has threatened to drown out the voices of ordinary Americans. In the 2012 elections, just 32 super PAC donors spent as much as all 3.7 million small donors to Mitt Romney and President Obama combined, and year after year, we’ve seen campaign spending records shattered.

> Keep Reading
News Release | Illinois PIRG | Democracy

New campaign launches to get big money out of politics

As the U.S. Senate debates a key measure to reduce the dominance of megadonors and Super PACs in our elections, today Illinois leaders called for the end of big money in politics, and for new policies to increase the impact of small donors.

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Report | Illinois PIRG Education Fund and People for the American Way Foundation | Democracy

Outsized Spending, Outsized Influence

The 2012 elections were by far the most expensive in history thanks primarily to the tidal wave of outside, special interest money triggered by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. The federal House races in Illinois, where outside groups spent nearly $24.7 million, were no exception. This fact sheet looks at the source of that money.

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Report | Illinois PIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Million Dollar Megaphones

A new analysis of data through Election Day from the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and other sources by U.S. PIRG and Demos shows how big outside spenders drowned out small contributions in 2012: just 61 large donors to Super PACs giving on average $4.7 million each matched the $285.1 million in grassroots contributions from more than 1,425,500 small donors to the major party presidential candidates.

> Keep Reading
Report | Illinois PIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Auctioning Democracy

Super PACs are tools used by wealthy individuals and institutions to dominate the political process. 93% of the itemized funds raised by Super PACs from individuals came in contributions of at least $10,000, from just twenty-three out of every 10 million people in the U.S. population.

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Blog Post | Democracy

SCOTUS Keeps Floodgates Open | Brian Imus

Today the  Supreme Court passed on the opportunity to revisit its disastrous 2010 Citizens United decision, which is wreaking havoc on democracy and has done so in a way that avoids giving the American public a much deserved explanation.

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Blog Post | Democracy

Why Target Is Still a Target | Brian Imus

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. That's why today, at the Target Corporation shareholder meeting in Chicago, shareholders will have an opportunity to vote on a resolution filed by Green Century Funds that calls for an end to the use of shareholder money to influence elections.

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Blog Post | Democracy

Super-Sized Loophole for Super PACs | Brian Imus

If you hate corruption in Illinois – I’ve got some bad news. The Illinois House of Representatives voted in favor of SB 3722, legislation that creates a super-sized loophole in the Illinois contribution limits law established in 2009.

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Blog Post | Democracy

Disempowered Bankers Start Super PAC, Reveal Plans for World Domination | Brian Imus

Members of the American Bankers Association recently announced that after years of being ignored in the halls of power, the industry will at last be creating its own super PAC to serve as its proverbial "big stick."

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