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

Big Money and Secret Spending Distorting Democracy

A new analysis of pre-election data from the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and other sources by the U.S. PIRG Education Fund 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. Outside spending organizations reported $1.11 billion in spending to the FEC through the final reporting deadline in the 2012 cycle. That’s already a 200% increase over total 2008 outside spending.

> Keep Reading
Media Hit | Democracy

National Journal: Passive-Aggressive Birthday Wishes to the Chamber

"The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is the poster child for Citizens United.They are the poster child for the unaccountable big money that's spreading secrets and lies through our democracy and corroding our right to self government," Blair Bowie of U.S. PIRG said, adding "In America, in a democracy, the size of your wallet does not determine the volume of your voice."

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

One Hundred Years of Secrets and Lies

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce should disclose the corporate donors behind its electoral advertising, U.S. PIRG, Public Citizen, Business Ethics Network, small business representatives and others said at a press conference today. The groups gathered in Lafayette Square, between the White House and U.S. Chamber headquarters. After the media event, they delivered over 30,000 petitions to the Chamber calling on it to shed light on the funders behind the millions of dollars worth of political ads the Chamber has purchased throughout the country.

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News Release | U.S. PIRG | Democracy

Press Conference: Celebrating 100 Years of Secrets and Lies

One of the biggest post-Citizens United dark money spenders in this year's election is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Despite trying to pass itself off as representing mom-and-pop small businesses, the U.S. Chamber's corporate funding has enabled it to become the second biggest outside spender to date and to pledge to spend up to $100 million in races across the country. Yet the U.S. Chamber will not disclose to the electorate the sources of its funding, denying citizens the opportunity to judge the credibility of its messaging. The U.S. Chamber exemplifies the unaccountable secret spending of the post-Citizens United landscape.

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

Million-Dollar Megaphones

Although each major party presidential candidate will likely break previous fundraising records, the big story of the 2012 election has been the role of Super PACs, nonprofits and outside spending generally. Demos and U.S. PIRG Education Fund analyzed Federal Election Commission (FEC) data and secondary sources on outside spending and Super PAC fundraising for the first two quarters of the 2012 election cycle.

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

SpeechNow and RNC Cases Decided in ‘Win-Some Lose-Some,’ Day for Campaign Finance Reform

In a pivotal campaign finance decision today, the Republican National Committee’s challenge to the ban on soft money contributions to national parties was rejected by a three-judge panel.

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

Campaign Finance Rules That Regulate 527 Spending Overturned

A federal appellate court panel of 3 judges has overturned campaign finance rules that limit how some political action committees (PAC’s) spend money in campaigns. The U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington said that the regulations limit free speech rights to 527s.

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

Citizens United Case Arguments Heard Tomorrow

The Supreme Court will rehear arguments tomorrow for a case that could have dramatic impact on the financing of elections. The case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, was first heard March, but in a surprising move this summer, Chief Justice Roberts asked for the case to be re-argued to consider a broader set of decisions regarding campaign finance law.

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