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 outraises 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 | NJPIRG Law & Policy Center | Democracy

Big Money Playing an Outsized Role in New Jersey Elections

In New Jersey’s congressional primaries, bigger wallets give a small set of mega-donors an outsized voice, according to new information released today by NJPIRG Law and Policy Center and Demos. Just 383 donors who gave $1,000 or more to candidates in the primaries outspent the at least 6,871 small donors who gave less than $200, and 66 percent of all candidate contributions came from donors giving chunks of $1,000 or more.

> Keep Reading
Report | NJPIRG Law & Policy Center | 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 | NJPIRG | Democracy

TODAY SUPREME COURT RULED FOR ANOTHER FLOOD OF BIG MONEY

Today the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in McCutcheon v. FECto strike down overall, or aggregate, contribution limits to candidates and political committees. NJPIRG 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 | NJPIRG | Democracy

ON DAY OF ORAL ARGUMENT IN MCCUTCHEON V. FEC, GROUPS GATHER TO PUSH BACK ON BIG MONEY IN POLITICS, DEMAND SOLUTIONS

NJPIRG, the New Jersey Sierra Club, Main Street Alliance and citizen activists from across the state gathered at the State House today to push back on the power of big money in elections, as the U.S. Supreme Court 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 | NJPIRG | Democracy

McCutcheon Money

This term, the Supreme Court is considering a challenge to aggregate contribution limits in a case called McCutcheon v. FEC. The current limit on what one person may contribute to all federal candidates, parties and PACs is $123,200. Absent this limit, one wealthy donor would be permitted to contribute more than $3.5 million to a single party’s candidates and party committees (plus a virtually unlimited amount to supportive PACs).

> Keep Reading

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News Release | NJPIRG | Democracy

Essex County Takes Stand Against Unlimited Special Interest Spending in Elections

On Wednesday, 3/27, the Essex County Board of Chosen Freeholders adopted a resolution calling on Congress to stop the unprecedented flow of special interest money into elections. The Freeholders urged Congress to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, which allowed unlimited corporate spending in elections.

> Keep Reading
News Release | NJPIRG Law & Policy Center | 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 New Jersey PIRG Education Fund and Demos shows how big outside spenders drowned out small contributions in the 2012 election cycle.

> Keep Reading
News Release | NJPIRG Law & Policy Center | Democracy

Distorted Democracy

TRENTON – A new analysis of pre-election data from the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and other sources by New Jersey PIRG 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. Outside spending organizations reported $ 1.11 billion in spending to the FEC through the final reporting deadline in the 2012 cycle.  That’s already a 200% increase over total 2008 outside spending. In New Jersey's Congressional races alone, more than $3 million in outside spending have been reported.

> Keep Reading
News Release | NJPIRG | Democracy

New Jersey Goes on Record Against Citizens United Ruling; Against Big, Secret Money in Our Elections

New Jersey PIRG believes that in our democracy, the size of one’s wallet should not determine the volume of one’s voice. By adopting a resolution in opposition to Citizens United, the New Jersey Assembly has sent a powerful message to Congress that things have to change. Today, our state took an important step towards fixing America’s broken campaign finance system. New Jersey joins eight other states already on record against Citizens United and big, secret money in our elections.

> Keep Reading
News Release | NJPIRG Law and Policy Center | Democracy, Tax

Thirty Companies Contribute $41 Million to 524 Members of Congress, Receive $10.6 Billion in Tax Rebates

A new report released Wednesday, March 21 by NJPIRG Law and Policy Center and Citizens for Tax Justice (CTJ) found that thirty unusually aggressive tax dodging corporations have made campaign contributions to 524 (98 percent) sitting members of Congress, and disproportionately to the leadership of both parties and to key committee members. 

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Report | NJPIRG Law & Policy Center | Democracy

Elections Confidential

“Elections Confidential” describes how secret donors poured hundreds of millions into the 2012 election through “social welfare” non-profits that are really political vehicles and via shell corporations formed as conduits to hide a funder’s identity.

> Keep Reading
Report | NJPIRG Law & Policy Center | Democracy

Distorted Democracy: Post-Election Edition

Our new analysis of data through Election Day from the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and other sources shows how big outside spenders drowned out small contributions in the 2012 election cycle: just 61 large donors to Super PACs giving on average $4.7 million each matched the $285.1 million in grassroots contributions from more than 1,425,500 small donors to the major party presidential candidates.

> Keep Reading
Report | NJPIRG Law & Policy Center and Demos | Democracy

Distorted Democracy

This analysis of pre-election data from the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and other sources by New Jersey PIRG 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
Report | NJPIRG Law and Policy Center and Demos | Democracy

Million-Dollar Megaphones

The Top 5 “dark money” spenders on presidential election ads have reported less than 1% of their spending to the FEC, which is all that is required by the agency’s insufficient standards, according to a new report analyzing the latest campaign filings.

N.J. PIRG and Demos report “Million-Dollar Megaphones: Super PACs and Unlimited Outside Spending in the 2012 Elections,” provides a detailed analysis of Federal Election Commission (FEC) data and secondary sources on outside spending and Super PAC fundraising for the 2012 election cycle.

> Keep Reading
Report | NJPIRG Law and Policy Center | Democracy, Tax

Loopholes for Sale

Recent polls show a large majority of Americans, including small business owners, are convinced that profitable corporations are not paying enough in taxes. Citizens for Tax Justice and NJPIRG’s Loopholes for Sale pursues the intersection of corporate campaign contributions to members of Congress and the absence of Congressional action to close corporate tax loopholes and raise additional revenue from corporate taxes. 

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