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

Report | WashPIRG Foundation | Democracy

Big Money Dominates in Congressional Primaries

Our analysis of fund-raising data from 2014’s congressional primaries examines the way these dynamics are playing out state by state across the country. While some states show markedly more inequity than others, the picture painted by the data is of a primary money race where large donors carry more weight than ordinary Americans. Nationwide, just under two-thirds of all candidate contributions came from the largest donors (those giving over $1,000). And fewer than 5,500 large donors matched the primary contributions coming from at least 440,000 donors nationwide.

> 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
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

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News Release | WashPIRG | Democracy

WashPIRG to receive “Organization of the Year” award for campaign finance disclosure work

On Saturday the Washington Public Interest Research Group (WashPIRG) will be recognized for its work on campaign finance disclosure and other elections-related legislation during the 2011 Legislature.

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News Release | WashPIRG | Democracy

Governor to sign watered-down campaign finance legislation

Governor Gregoire today is expected to sign legislation that was originally intended to curb campaign finance abuses in Washington, although the bill presented to her contains significantly fewer limits on abuses than it started with.

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Media Hit | Democracy

Campaign finance reform? Amateurs could circumvent this

About 10 minutesor an hour at most is how long it would take even a marginally skilled political operative would take to circumvent the new campaign finance rules contained in Senate Bill 5021.

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News Release | WashPIRG | Democracy

Even the “Man from Moxie” votes for campaign finance reform

After rejecting a slew of amendments that would have gutted the intentions of legislation to strengthen state campaign finance disclosure regulations, the House unanimously passed Senate Bill-5021 this afternoon.

> Keep Reading
News Release | WashPIRG | Democracy

Opponent of campaign finance reform moves to neuter legislation

Rep. David Taylor (R-Moxie) has introduced three amendments that would neuter legislation to increase campaign finance disclosure requirements currently under consideration before the state House of Representatives.

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