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

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
News Release | Illinois PIRG | Democracy

Five Years After Citizens United, Groups Gather to Rally Against Big Money in Elections and Call for Solutions

Illinois PIRG, joined by a broad array of groups and dozens of local residents, gathered at the Kluczynski Federal Plaza to mark the fifth anniversary of Citizens United, the infamous decision that birthed Super PACs and opened the floodgates for special interest money in our elections.  The groups called out the flood of big money in elections and put forward solutions to amplify the voice of average Americans.

> 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
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.

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Democracy

Student Government Leaders Support Voting Reform Bill | Abe Scarr

The Illinois Legislature is close to passing a sweeping election reform bill that, among other positive reforms, would make Election Day Registration permanent, and provide early voting on all state University campuses. Illinois student leaders have rallied to suppor the bill.

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News Release | Illinois PIRG | Democracy

Illinois PIRG Applauds the Introduction of the Government by the People Act

The Government By the People Act would change the way our elections are financed through a combination of matching funds for small donations, and a “My Voice” tax credit.  Instead of relying on Wall Street executives or lobbyists, participating candidates  would rely on the ones the founding fathers intended them to represent: we the people

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

Testimony before the Illinois Campaign Finance Reform Task Force

Testimony by Anu Dathan at a hearing by the Campaign Finance Reform Task Force on January 17, 2013. The hearing was part of the Task Force's study of the role of SuperPACs in Illinois elections. The testimony covers the key findings of Illinois PIRG's report, Billion-Dollar Democracy, and its recommendations.

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News Release | Illinois PIRG Education Fund | Democracy

New Analysis: Tiny Number of Wealthy Contributors Match Millions of Small Donors, Will Continue to Set Agenda In Washington

A new analysis of data through Election Day from the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and other sources by Illinois PIRG Education Fund 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 presidential candidates.

 

> Keep Reading
News Release | Illinois PIRG | Democracy

Distorted Democracy: Big Money and Dark Money in the 2012 Elections

A new analysis of pre-election data from the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and other sources by Illinois PIRG and Demos shows that outside spending in the first presidential election since Citizens United is living up to its hype: new waves of “outside spending” have been fueled by dark money and unlimited fundraising from a small number of wealthy donors.

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