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 | 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
News Release | WashPIRG Foundation | Democracy

New Analysis: Tiny Number of Wealthy Contributors Match Millions of Small Donors, Will Continue to Set Agenda In Washington

A new analysis of data through Election Day from the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and other sources by U.S. PIRG and Demos shows that 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 two major-party presidential candidates.

> Keep Reading
News Release | WashPIRG | Democracy

Distorted Democracy: Big Money and Dark Money in the 2012 Elections

A new analysis of pre-election data from the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and other sources by WashPIRG 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.

> Keep Reading
News Release | WashPIRG | Democracy

First-of-its-kind “Refrain From Political Spending” Resolution to Be Voted on at Bank of America Shareholder Meeting

On Wednesday, May 9, shareholders at Bank of America will vote “yea” or “nay” on a first-of-its-kind “refrain from political spending” resolution. Resolutions addressing political spending are among the most popular in the 2012 shareholder season, many dealing with disclosure of such spending. This is the first shareholder season for this groundbreaking resolution which was introduced by socially responsible investment firms Trillium Asset Management at Bank of America and 3M Corporation and by Green Century Capital Management at Target Corporation.

> 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

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News Release | WashPIRG | Democracy

Initiative promotion is a business that should quit freeloading, pay its own overhead costs

A bill in the Legislature to reform the paid signature-gathering and initiative-promotion industries in Washington has the support of one of the state’s leading watchdog groups.

> Keep Reading
Media Hit | Democracy

Campaign spending: We need to know who's behind the big bucks

Although recent elections saw more people making small-dollar contributions to political campaigns, their influence was overshadowed by powerful special interests dumping vast sums of money into the political process. Often, these groups used sleight-of-hand accounting tricks or anonymous independent expenditures to hide themselves.

> Keep Reading

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