Our democracy has a big money problem.

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 2016 election cycle was the most expensive in U.S. history with almost $6.5 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.

This 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 advocating for small donor empowerment programs, that will bring power back to the people.

These 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.

Denver is one of 29 cities, states and counties across the country with small donor matching systems. In November, Denver residents voted to approve a new campaign finance system that candidates can opt-in to that would allow participants to run for office fueled by small donations and average voters. The measure improves upon the previous Democracy for the People measure that will be pulled from the ballot by proponents. The reform that Denver City Council approved, and voters will see on their ballot in November, would make three major changes:

  1. Lower contribution limits by two thirds to be more in line with other offices in Colorado.

  2. Eliminate direct business contributions to candidates and create a committee system that mirrors other races in Colorado including creating small donor committees that take in small donations.

  3. Create a new small donor empowerment program that candidates can opt-in to that would match any small donation of $50 or less with a 9 to 1 public match. Only candidates that have generated a certain number of contributions and thus demonstrated public support are eligible for the system. All unused public matching dollars are returned to the fund after the election.

  • <h5>How Small Donor Programs Work</h5><h4>Candidate Says No To Big Money</h4><p>When a candidate rejects large (typically more than $150), corporate and PAC contributions, they become eligible to participate in a small donor matching program.</p>
  • <h5>How Small Donor Programs Work</h5><h4>Candidates Raise Money From Citizens</h4><p>Instead of spending time calling mega-donors, or at $10,000-per-plate fundraisers, candidates go out and raise money from their constituents. </p>
  • <h5>How Small Donor Programs Work</h5><h4>Small Donor Dollars Are Matched</h4><p>Each small donor contribution that a candidate raises receives a matching donation from public funds, at a ratio of around 6 to 1. So a $25 check could be worth a total of $175.</p>
  • <h5>How Small Donor Programs Work</h5><h4>Small Donor Programs Work</h4><p>New York City’s small donor program allowed participating candidates in the 2013 City Council race to raise 61 percent of their contributions from small donations and matching funds. That year, 92 percent of candidates running in the primary participated in the program.</p>
State By State, City By City

Small donor programs are working. New York City has been using a system like this for decades. And recently, our national network helped pass a public financing program in Denver, as well as other small donor empowerment programs in Seattle, Maine, Washington, D.C., and Maryland’s Montgomery, Prince George's and Howard counties, and our national partners are building on this momentum by working to pass statewide bills in Oregon and Maryland.

We're starting small. Passing small donor programs at the municipal and county levels is a key step to making big change. First, it elects people to office who know firsthand that small donor systems work — people who can go on to become champions of reform in city halls, statehouses and in Washington, D.C. Second, it builds a base of campaign workers, volunteers and voters who have renewed faith in our democracy. Utilizing this approach here at home, combined with the nationwide efforts of our coalition, will help build enough support to pass more state reforms, and ultimately build momentum for the Government By The People Act — a bill that would empower small donors in federal elections.

We can do this. Our organization's research, advocacy and organizing have helped highlight the problems that stem from having big money influence our elections. Our national network's work on the ground helped 16 states and more than 650 communities take a stand against Citizens United — on the record. We mobilized voters to help win transformative reforms on the ballot that empower small donors in Denver, and our coalition partners did the same in Seattle, Maine, Washington, D.C., and in Montgomery County, Prince George's County and Howard County, Maryland.

GET INVOLVED
Get Consumer Alerts

If you haven’t, sign up for our alerts, so you can stay up to date with the latest campaign developments. And please consider supporting the research, advocacy and organizing that it takes to continue pushing for change.