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 | 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
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
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
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
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

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News Release | Illinois PIRG Education Fund | Democracy

In Aldermanic Races Fueled by Big Money, Top Fundraiser Wins 93% of the Time

In the Chicago aldermanic races the candidate with the most money almost always wins, small donors represent only a small portion of candidates’ campaign cash, and small donor campaign finance reform would shake up elections according to a new report from Illinois PIRG Education Fund. The report analyzes campaign contributions going to top candidates in all 50 wards in the 2015 aldermanic elections.

> Keep Reading
News Release | Illinois PIRG | Democracy

Chicago Voters Want to Curb Influence of Big Money, Empower Small Donors

While some races- including the mayoral - are headed for runoffs, Chicago voters spoke loud and clear on one issue: it’s time to get big money out of our elections.

> 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
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.

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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.

> Keep Reading
Report | U.S. PIRG Education Fund & Center for Media and Democracy | Democracy

Elections Confidential

Elections Confidential describes how secret donors poured hundreds of millions into the 2012 election through “social welfare” non-profits that are really political vehicles and via shell corporations formed as conduits to hide a funder’s identity.

> Keep Reading
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

The End of Net Neutrality As We Know It? | Ed Mierzwinski

On Thursday, 5/15 the FCC meets to propose new rules "to protect and promote the open Internet," after a court threw out parts of its current rules. The problem, however, is that some of the FCC Chairman's preliminary comments suggest he's for killing the core feature of the open Internet, Net Neutrality, in order to save it.

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Blog Post | Democracy

IRS Scandal Highlights Need for Increased Transparency in Campaign Financing

It’s up to the IRS to ensure that nonprofits are not being used as illicit vehicles to funnel untraceable money into our elections. However the agency’s handling of this responsibility has been thoroughly outrageous, the latest scandal being just the latest example of disturbing action—or, as has been more often the case, inaction. 

> Keep Reading
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.

> Keep Reading
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.

> Keep Reading
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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Report | U.S. PIRG

U.S. PIRG analyzed the campaign finance reports from 2020 candidates. We found that small donations, and the people who provide them, have a significant voice in the presidential race.

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.

Democracy | U.S. PIRG

Small donors are driving the 2020 presidential race

For years, it has been impossible to run for office without relying heavily on large dollar donations. While big money still has disproportionate influence, a combination of technological and cultural changes have made it possible for candidates for president to run for office while relying primarily on small-donor money.

 
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