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

Wealthy donors have always had an outsized influence in our democracy, but misguided jurisprudence, like the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, has opened the floodgates for mega donations and corporate spending in our elections.

Spending on political races has skyrocketed, and running for office has never been more expensive. The 2020 election cycle was the most expensive in U.S. history with over $14 billion spent. As a result, unless candidates are independently wealthy, they often need to court contributions from mega-donors or corporate interests to be competitive in their races.

Our currect campaign finance system gives a very small number of people massive influence on who runs for office and, often, what issues they decide to talk about. In 2016, fewer than 400 families gave more than half of all of the money raised in the presidential race. That’s not how our democracy is supposed to work. Our democracy is supposed to be based on the principle of one person, one vote.

Ultimately, we need to overturn Citizens United and make other systemic changes if we want to get big money out of our elections. But large-scale changes like these take time, public pressure, and elected leaders who are committed to making it happen. That’s why we’re researching and supporting small donor empowerment programs, that will bring power back to the people.

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

RECLAIMING OUR DEMOCRACY

Small donor publc financing programs match contributions of ordinary people with public funds. Candidates access these funds when they opt into the program and refuse to take large and corporate contributions. This means anyone with enough public support can run for office, those candidates can raise enough money to be competitive, and they will be answerable to their constituents, not a handful of mega-donors and corporations.

Communites across Maryland have established small donor public financing to give everyone a voice in our elections and keep big money out.  Montgomery County's program was in effect for the first time for the 2018 elections. To participate, candidates must reject contributions over $150 and money from corporations. Maryland PIRG Foundation analysis found:

  • Candidates who had qualified received nearly twice as many donations from Montgomery County residents than those not participating.
  • Those not participating received only 8 percent of their donations from people giving less than $150, while those participating received more than 90 percent of their donations from people giving less than $150.
  • By the June primary, more than half of all candidates, over 30 total, participated in the program. Ultimately, 22 qualified for the program — candidates from both parties and from a wide range of backgrounds who were able to run competitive campaigns based on support from the communities, not large donors.  

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

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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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.

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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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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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Blog Post

Some of the biggest contributors to candidates in our elections are corporations, which spend tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars on political contests up and down the ballot. The influence of corporate money in our elections puts our democracy at risk, pushing regular voters to the sidelines as candidates work to court big money interests.

Report | U.S. PIRG Education Fund

Control of the United States Senate is at stake in the 2016 elections. Out of 34 senate races nationally, the outcome could be decided by just several swing states and a few key constituencies. But there is another deciding factor in this year’s race for the senate: money.

News Release | U.S. PIRG Education Fund

A new report by U.S. PIRG Education Fund shows that 77 percent of funding in the 34 senate races happening nationwide comes from out-of-state. Released on Monday, Outside Influence: Out-of-State Money in the 2016 Senate Elections highlights the share of money that candidates, PACs, super PACs, and party committees have raised from outside the state they are spending on. In seven swing senate races highlighted in the report, a full 81 percent of election funding is coming from out-of-state.

News Release | U.S. PIRG Education Fund

On Monday, October 24, U.S. PIRG Education Fund will release Outside Influence: Out-of-State Money in the 2016 Senate Elections, a report examining out-of-state money funneled into the 2016 senate races. Findings highlight the share of money that candidates, PACs, super PACs, and party committees have raised from out-of-state, with a focus on money in swing elections which could decide party control of the Senate.

News Release | U.S. PIRG Education Fund

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