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

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.

We need more success stories like these if we are going to build momentum for change. That’s why we’re working with cities and towns across the country to establish small donor incentive programs of their own.

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 | CoPIRG | Democracy

McCutcheon Money

We project that striking the aggregate contribution limit would bring more than $1 billion in additional campaign contributions from elite donors through the 2020 election cycle.

> Keep Reading
News Release | CoPIRG | Democracy

CoPIRG Applauds the Introduction of the Government by the People Act

CoPIRG applauded Rep. Polis and Perlmutter today for co-sponsoring new legislation aimed at raising the voices of everyday people in the political process. Rep. Polis and Perlmutter are co-sponsors 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 | CoPIRG | Democracy

6 Congress members Receive Failing Grades for Inaction on Amendment 65

Only three of Colorado’s nine Congress members have taken concrete action in response to Amendment 65, a call to action by Colorado voters last November to get big money out of our elections, according to a new report by CoPIRG and Colorado Common Cause. The two organizations graded the delegation on the same day that the US Supreme Court heard oral arguments on McCutcheon vs FEC, a case that could exacerbate the flood of big money in politics.

> Keep Reading
Report | CoPIRG | Democracy

Pass or Fail

Nearly a year later and almost half-way through the term of the 113th Congress, it is past time for the Colorado delegation to act on Amendment 65 and move forward a constitutional amendment that allows for campaign spending limits. To measure which Congress members are taking their voters seriously and which ones are not, we graded them on whether they had taken a simple yet important step to follow the wishes of Colorado voters. Did they introduce or cosponsor a constitutional amendment that would fulfill the call to action of Amendment 65?

> Keep Reading
News Release | CoPIRG | Democracy

Post-Amendment 65: Mixed Report for Colorado’s Delegation

Denver– On the eve of the three-year anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, one that opened the campaign spending floodgates, two state-based groups reported that too many in Colorado’s Congressional delegation have done too little to respond to Amendment 65’s call for campaign spending reform. 

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Media Hit | Democracy

Raising the Youth Voice in Grand Junction

Twenty-year-old Benjamin Shipman will vote in his first U.S. presidential election Nov. 6, and he's working to ensure other youth also exercise their right to vote.

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News Release | CoPIRG | Democracy

Initiative Targeting Big Campaign Spenders Qualifies for November Ballot

Coloradans have responded to the barrage of campaign spending in Colorado by putting an initiative on the ballot to instruct Colorado’s elected officials to pass a federal constitutional amendment to limit campaign contributions and spending.

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News Release | CoPIRG | Democracy

New Report Details Latest Campaign Finance Numbers on Outside Spending

Unlimited outside spending fueled by a small number of wealthy donors is poised to have an outsized impact on the 2012 elections, according to a new report analyzing the latest campaign filings.   

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News Release | CoPIRG | Democracy

Citizens United Opinion Widens Corporate “Personhood” Rights

Supreme Court decision in Citizen’s United vs. Federal Election Commission will significantly expand the role that the most powerful corporations play in election financing.

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