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 In Seattle ...

WashPIRG is part of a coalition working to reform our elections and get big money out. We have an exciting opportunity to do that in Seattle this fall.

I-122: Honest Elections Seattle has a simple goal of keeping Seattle elections transparent, accountable and honest by making a number of much-needed upgrades and improvements to how Seattle elections are currently run. I-122 will:

  • Limit corporate and wealthy interests' influence on elections by lowering contribution limits.
  • Increase participation of everyday people, by creating a democracy voucher program that empowers everyday people to engage in elections and encourages qualified candidates to focus on small donors, not just wealthy donors.
  • Keep elected officials honest by closing the revolving door of top officials and their aides taking lobbying jobs immediately after leaving office and requiring that they disclose conflicts of interest.
  • Increase transparency, accountability and fines on rule breakers.
To learn more about the initiative, visit this page.
 

... and Nationwide

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.

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

Result | Democracy

Delivering one million petitions to President Obama on dark money

U.S. PIRG joined a broad coalition to deliver one million petitions from Americans, including U.S. PIRG members and supporters, calling on President Obama to shine a light on dark money, or secret political spending.

> Keep Reading
News Release | WashPIRG | Democracy

Victory: Honest Elections Seattle Initiative Passes

On Tuesday, November 3, Seattle voters approved Initiative 122: Honest Election Seattle, putting Seattle at the forefront of a nationwide movement to empower regular voters and reduce the influence of special interests and mega-donors in elections. WashPIRG aided the passage of I-122, gathering signatures to qualify the initiative, and mobilizing canvassers and organizers to talk to thousands of voters over the past few weeks.

> Keep Reading
News Release | WashPIRG | Democracy

New study shows outsized role of elite donors, non-Seattle donors in 2015 City Council race

A new analysis by WashPIRG has found that just 1,589 contributors, whose individual contributions were worth $500 or more, provided more than half of the $2.5 million raised by candidates up to the August primary election. Candidates raised more than $450,000, or roughly one-fifth of all funds, from 596 non-resident donors who gave contributions worth $500 or more. Only 18 percent of the money raised by all Seattle city council candidates leading up to the August 4 primary came from small donors giving $100 or less.  Small dollar donors don’t have much of a voice when 82 percent of the money raised by candidates during the 2015 primary came from contributions of more than $100. The study also looks at how Honest Elections Seattle will empower regular voters and limit the influence of big money in local elections.

> Keep Reading
Report | WashPIRG | Democracy

The Outsized Influence of Big Money in Seattle's Elections

The role of money in elections is typically discussed in the context of high profile races such as those for President, Congress, or Governor, but big money from a tiny sliver of wealthy donors has an outsized role even in cities like Seattle.  The influence of money in smaller races like City Council is often underestimated.  This report looks at political giving in Seattle’s first district elections – the August 4, 2015 primary.  

> Keep Reading
News Release | WashPIRG Foundation | Democracy

New study shows potential impact of a small donor matching program on 2016 presidential race

Candidates in the 2016 presidential race would see a dramatic shift in their fundraising, and have a powerful incentive to focus more on small donors under a proposed small donor public financing system, according to a study released on Tuesday by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG). Using candidate filings with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) through July, “Boosting the Impact of Small Donors: How Matching Funds Would Reshape the 2016 Presidential Election” examines the impact of a program that matches small contributions with limited public funds for candidates who agree not to accept large donations.

> Keep Reading

Pages

News Release | WashPIRG | 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, Sen. Durbin introduced legislation on June 10, 2015 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 | WashPIRG Foundation | Democracy

Big Money Playing an Outsized Role in Washington Elections

In Washington’s congressional primaries, bigger wallets give a small set of mega-donors an outsized voice, according to new information released today by the WashPIRG Foundation and Demos. Just 259 donors who gave $1,000 or more to candidates in the primaries outspent the at least 6,233 small donors who gave less than $200, and 57% percent of all candidate contributions came from donors giving chunks of $1,000 or more.

> Keep Reading
News Release | WashPIRG | Democracy

Today Supreme Court Ruled for Another Flood of Big Money

Today the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in McCutcheon v. FEC to strike down overall, or aggregate, contribution limits to candidates and political committees. WashPIRG research found that this ruling could bring $1 billion in additional campaign contributions from fewer than 2,800 elite donors through the 2020 election cycle.

> Keep Reading
News Release | WashPIRG | Democracy

WashPIRG Applauds the Introduction of the Government by the People Act

WashPIRG applauded Rep. Adam Smith today for co-sponsoring new legislation aimed at raising the voices of everyday people in the political process. Rep. Smith is an original co-sponsor of the Government By the People Act (H.R. 20), legislation that would allow candidates to run competitive campaigns for office by relying on small dollar donors.

> Keep Reading
News Release | WashPIRG | Democracy

ON DAY OF ORAL ARGUMENTS IN MCCUTCHEON V. FEC, WASHINGTON STATE PUBLIC OFFICIALS AND POLITICAL GROUPS GATHER TO PUSH BACK ON BIG MONEY IN POLITICS, DEMAND SOLUTIONS

Today WashPIRG, Washington Senator Adam Kline, Fair Elections Seattle, Backbone Campaign, WAMEND and University of Washington students gathered at the U.S. District Court in downtown Seattle to push back on the power of big money in elections, as the U.S. Supreme Court today heard oral arguments in McCutcheon v. FEC. Advocates say the case would further increase the electoral clout of a few large donors.

> Keep Reading

Pages

Report | WashPIRG Foundation | Democracy

McCutcheon Money

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.

> Keep Reading
Report | WashPIRG | Democracy

Subsidizing Bad Behavior

BP’s recent $4.5 billion legal settlement with the Justice Department for its misdeeds in the Gulf oil spill was historic for being the largest ever criminal settlement.  But it was historic for another reason as well—none of it is allowed to be tax deductible.  Unfortunately, too many settlements for wrongdoing end up as tax deductions.

> Keep Reading
Report | WashPIRG Foundation | Democracy

Auctioning Democracy

A new report by WashPIRG Foundation and Demos shows an analysis of the funding sources for the campaign finance behemoths, Super PACs. The findings confirmed what many have predicted in the wake of the Supreme Court’s damaging Citizens United decision: since their inception in 2010, Super PACs have been primarily funded by a small segment of very wealthy individuals and business interests, with a small but significant amount of funds coming from secret sources.

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

Following the Money 2011

This report is U.S. PIRG Education Fund’s second annual ranking of states’ progress toward “Transparency 2.0” – a new standard of comprehensive, one-stop, one-click budget accountability and accessibility.

> Keep Reading
Report | WashPIRG | Democracy

Following the Money 2010

 At least 32 states currently mandate that residents be able to access an online database of government expenditures with “checkbook-level” detail. Most of these Web sites are also searchable, making it easier for residents to obtain information about government spending.

> Keep Reading

Pages

View AllRSS Feed

Join Our Call

Tell your representative to stand up for our democracy, and amplify the voices of small donors in our elections.

Support Us

Your donation supports WashPIRG’s work to stand up for consumers on the issues that matter, especially when powerful interests are blocking progress.

Consumer Alerts

Join our network and stay up to date on our campaigns, get important consumer updates and take action on critical issues.
Optional Member Code