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

News Release | CoPIRG | Democracy

Amendment 65 Expected to Win Overwhelmingly

Based on early returns, it appears clear that Colorado voters will approve Amendment 65 today by an overwhelming margin and send a clear message to their elected officials – get big money out of our elections.  As of 8pm and with 1.2 million votes reported, Amendment 65 was passing overwhelmingly in counties including Mesa, Douglas, Kit Carson, Boulder and Jefferson.

> Keep Reading
News Release | CoPIRG | 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 CoPIRG 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.

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Media Hit | Democracy

Colorado Votes: The Big Ballot Questions

Colorado Public Radio reviews Amendment 65

> Keep Reading
News Release | CoPIRG Foundation | Democracy

New Voters Project Helps Register 13,000 Youth to Vote in Colorado

From Alamosa to Fort Collins, CoPIRG’s New Voters Project registered over 13,000 Colorado youth to vote in time for the November 6th, 2012 election.

> Keep Reading
Media Hit | Democracy

Amendment 65: Voters, not money, should drive elections

Six days and 14 hours. According to a recent analysis by the students of CU News Corps, that's how long it would take you to sit down and watch the political ads that have been purchased on Denver's four biggest television stations this year. The price tag? Nearly $20 million.

> Keep Reading

Pages

News Release | CoPIRG

Tonight, the Denver City Council is voted to place on the November ballot 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 the proponents.

News Release | CoPIRG

CoPIRG Director Danny Katz applauds Colorado Representative Mike Coffman (R) for introducing H.R. 4077, the bipartisan Honest Ads Act, along with Washington Representative Derek Kilmer (D). “Coloradans should know who’s behind the ads they get bombarded with every election – it’s critical to democracy,” said Danny Katz, CoPIRG Director. “The current divide between what needs to be disclosed in ads on traditional media and online platforms is outdated, and it has kept voters in the dark about communications that are intended to influence our vote. This legislation is a strong step to ensure transparency in our elections, and to rebuild faith in our political process.” 

News Release

Read CoPIRG's statement on the President's establishment of an "Advisory Commission on Election Integrity."

Blog Post

There’s a lot unfolding in Washington, D.C., right now, and you may be wondering: “What can I do to voice my concerns?”

Report | U.S. PIRG Education Fund

Control of the United States Senate is at stake in the 2016 elections. Out of 34 senate races nationally, the outcome could be decided by just several swing states and a few key constituencies. But there is another deciding factor in this year’s race for the senate: money.

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