Democracy For The People

U.S. PIRG Education Fund is pushing back against big money in our elections and working to educate the public about the benefits 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: 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 giving 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. 

It's time to reclaim our democracy and bring it back to the principle of one person, one vote. 

RECLAIMING OUR DEMOCRACY

Small donor empowerment programs that encourage the participation of the average American in the political system are a key weapon in the fight to reclaim our democracy. These programs provide public matching funds to campaigns for small donations and offer tax credits to encourage everyday citizens to make small campaign contributions.  

These programs can help focus candidates for office on seeking the broad support of the public rather than the narrow support of a few moneyed interests and help bring more ordinary citizens into the process. Their track record is impressive – for example, under New York City’s program, in 2013 participating City Council candidates got 61% of their contributions from small donations and matching funds, and in 2011, all but two winning city councilors used matching funds. If enacted nationally, a similar program could fundamentally shift the balance of power in our elections from mega-donors, back to ordinary citizens.

That’s why we’re working with our national coalition to educate citizens about the solutions that we can act on now to amplify their voices above the voices of megadonors and special interests. By assembling a broad coalition of support, educating and mobilizing citizens and digging deep into the impact of big money in our elections with our reports, we’re bringing democracy back to the people.

Together, we can win real changes now in how elections are funded throughout America — so more candidates for more offices focus on we, the people, instead of we, the megadonors.

 

Issue updates

News Release | US PIRG Education Fund | Democracy

“Elections Confidential” Report Reveals Role of Dark Money Groups and Shell Corporations in 2012

Mystery donors poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the 2012 elections via dark money non-profit groups and shell corporations, despite widespread public support for disclosure and decades of legal precedent supporting the public’s right to know the sources of election-related spending. A new report from the U.S. PIRG Education Fund and the Center for Media and Democracy found that contributions from phony for-profit corporations accounted for nearly 17 percent of all business donations to Super PACs.

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Report | U.S. PIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Elections Confidential

“Elections Confidential” describes how secret donors poured hundreds of millions into the 2012 election through social-welfare groups that are really political vehicles and via shell corporations formed as conduits to hide a funder’s identity. The first post-Citizens United presidential election cycle was bought and paid for by a handful of wealthy donors, but the corrosive influence of money in politics was amplified by the fact that we don’t know who – or what – actually provided much of the funding.

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Report | U.S. 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.

Demos and U.S. PIRG analysis of reports from campaigns, parties, and outside spenders to the Federal Election Commission found that our big money system distorts democracy and creates clear winners and losers.

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News Release | U.S. PIRG Education Fund | Democracy

When Schapiro Steps Down, SEC Should Step Up on Political Spending Disclosure

As Chairwoman Mary Schapiro ends her term at the Securities and Exchange Commission, U.S. PIRG urges President Obama to appoint a chairperson who will prioritize rulemaking that would bring post-Citizens United “dark money” corporate political spending into the light.

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Report | U.S. PIRG Education Fund, Demos | Democracy

Distorted Democracy: Post-Election Spending Analysis

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 an average of $4.7 million each matched the $285.2 million in grassroots contributions from more than 1,425,500 small donors to the major party presidential candidates. 

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Media Hit | Democracy

The Daily Show mentions U.S.PIRG Report: Representation Without Taxation

Massachusetts Senate hopeful Elizabeth Warren and Jon Stewart discussed U.S. PIRG and Citizens for Tax Justice's new report, Representation Without Taxation, on the January 24th edition of the Daily Show. The report outlines the "Dirty 30", corporations that spent more money lobbying congress than they paid in taxes between 2008-2010. U.S. PIRG and CTJ released the report to mark the two-year anniversary of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which opened the floodgates for corporate influence in our government, as well as to highlight the need to fix the tax code to force corporations to pay their fair share.

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News Release | U.S. PIRG Education Fund | Budget, Democracy

Thirty Fortune 500 Companies Paid More to Lobby Congress than they Did in Federal Income Taxes

With the second anniversary approaching of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case – which opened the floodgates to corporate spending on elections – U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG) and Citizens for Tax Justice reveal 30 corporations that spent more to lobby Congress than they did in taxes.

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News Release | U.S. PIRG Education Fund | Democracy

U.S. PIRG Calls on Candidates to Denounce Super PACs

The current coordination rules are an insult to American democracy, yet candidates continue to test their luck in weakening them further. If the presidential contenders, all of whom have sympathetic Super PACs, are serious about their objections, then they should publicly denounce their affiliated independent expenditure committees.

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News Release | U.S. PIRG Education Fund | Democracy

6 Reform Groups Support the Letter of 25 Representatives in Favor of President Obama’s Proposed Transparency Executive Order

Yesterday Reps. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), Michael Capuano (D-Mass.), and 23 others, wrote a letter to President Obama expressing their strong support for the April 13 draft executive order to require full disclosure of campaign spending and contributions by business entities that seek federal government contracts.

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News Release | U.S. PIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Foreign Funds in American Elections

This week we learned that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce could be using money from foreign corporations to fund attack ads in our elections.

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