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 | 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
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
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

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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
News Release | Illinois PIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Small donor program could reshape campaign fundraising in Cook County State's Attorney race, new report shows

Candidates in the 2016 Cook County State’s Attorney Democratic primary race would see a dramatic shift in fundraising focus under a proposed small donor matching program, according to a study released today by Illinois PIRG Education Fund.

> 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
News Release | Illinois PIRG | Democracy

Sen. Durbin Offers Bill to Fight Big Money in Elections by Amplifying Voices of Small Donors

With 2016 candidates already raising record amounts from large donors for their campaigns, U.S. Senator Dick Durbin introduced legislation today that would empower small donors in our elections. The Fair Elections Now Act would enable more Americans to participate in the electoral process by establishing a $25 “my voice” refundable tax credit. Small contributions of less than $150 would then be matched with limited public funds at a rate of six-to-one for Senate candidates that agree to turn down big money, amplifying the voices of small donors.  

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

Mayoral Election Dominated by Big, Out of Town Money

Thicker wallets gave big donors an outsized voice in this year’s mayoral election, according to new analysis of campaign finance data by Illinois PIRG Education Fund. Contributions greater than $1,000 accounted for 92% of the money contributed to the Emanuel and Garcia Campaigns, while under 2% of the money contributed came from contributions of less than $150. A clear majority -- 58% -- of money contributed, came from donors living outside Chicago.

> Keep Reading

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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
Report | Illinois PIRG Education Fund and Demos | Democracy

The Dominance of Big Money in the 2014 Congressional Elections

In 2014, large donors accounted for the vast majority of all individual federal election contributions this cycle, just as they have in previous elections. Seven of every 10 individual contribution dollars to the federal candidates, parties, PACs and Super PACs that were active in the 2013-2014 election cycle came from donors who gave $200 or more. Candidates alone got 84 percent of their individual contributions from large donors.

> Keep Reading
Report | Illinois PIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Big Money Dominates in Congressional Primaries

Our analysis of fund-raising data from 2014’s congressional primaries examines the way these dynamics are playing out state by state across the country. While some states show markedly more inequity than others, the picture painted by the data is of a primary money race where large donors carry more weight than ordinary Americans. Nationwide, just under two-thirds of all candidate contributions came from the largest donors (those giving over $1,000). And fewer than 5,500 large donors matched the primary contributions coming from at least 440,000 donors nationwide

> Keep Reading
Report | U.S. PIRG, Demos | Democracy

"MCCUTCHEON" COULD ADD OVER $1 BILLION IN CONTRIBUTIONS TO NEXT FOUR ELECTIONS

We project that striking the aggregate limit would bring more than $1 billion in additional campaign contributions from elite donors through the 2020 election cycle.

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Report | Illinois PIRG Education Fund & Demos | Democracy

Billion-Dollar Democracy

The first presidential election since Citizens United lived up to its hype, with unprecedented outside spending from new sources making headlines. This is Demos' and Illinois PIRG Education Fund's analysis of reports from campaigns, parties, and outside spenders to the Federal Election Commission to find our big money system distorts democracy and creates clear winners and losers.

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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.

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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.

> 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.

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Democracy

Election Day Registration Passes Illinois House | Abe Scarr

Legislation to make Election Day Registration permanent - backed by Illinois PIRG and our coalition, Just Vote - passed through the Illinois House today. The Senate has until tomorrow to pass the bill before the fall session ends.

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Democracy

The "Level" Playing Field | Abe Scarr

The fact that allowing megadonors to contribute without limit is considered 'leveling the playing field,' creating a playing field on which the vast majority of Chicago voters can't play any meaningful role, is a sad statement of how big money has been allowed to dominate our elections

> Keep Reading

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Blog Post

 

Chicago's mayoral candidates ran to represent all of the city's 2.7 million people. It would be good if their donors represented at least a cross-section of the people, too. But they didn't.

News Release | Illinois PIRG Education Fund

Analysis of Mayoral campaign finance reports through one week before Election Day shows that less than 1 percent of money raised has come from donors giving less than $150, while 97 percent has come from donors giving $1,000 or more. 

Report | Illinois PIRG Education Fund

As we approach ten years since Citizens United v. FEC, the growing dominance of a small group of big donors in Illinois elections is undeniable. From City Council to Governor, political campaigns are increasingly fueled by a small number of donors who make contributions far larger than average voters can afford. Increasingly, to run a competitive race, a candidate cannot rely primarily on small donors, but instead needs to draw on the small number of large donors who can afford to make big contributions, from their personal wealth, or from the war chests of established political players. As the presence of big money in politics grows, the voices of small donors are increasingly stifled.

Blog Post

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

News Release

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

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