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

Blog Post | Democracy

Call your representative and senators every day. Here's how. | Andre Delattre

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

> Keep Reading
Result | Democracy

Delivering one million petitions to President Obama on dark money

U.S. PIRG joined a broad coalition to deliver one million petitions from Americans, including U.S. PIRG members and supporters, calling on President Obama to shine a light on dark money, or secret political spending.

> Keep Reading
Result | Democracy

Giving more Americans a greater voice in our elections

In our democracy, the size of your wallet shouldn’t determine the volume of your voice. In 2015, we helped win reforms in Maine and Seattle to ensure that more Americans have a greater say in our elections. Seattle’s Initiative-122 empowers small donors with “democracy vouchers” that can be donated to local candidates and lowers the cap on contributions. In Maine, the state’s Clean Elections Act was improved by strengthening campaign finance disclosure laws and offering qualifying candidates increased public funding.

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

The Dominance of Big Money in the 2014 Congressional Elections

In 2014, large donors accounted for the vast majority of all individual federal election contributions this cycle, just as they have in previous elections. Seven of every 10 individual contribution dollars to the federal candidates, parties, PACs and Super PACs that were active in the 2013-2014 election cycle came from donors who gave $200 or more. Candidates alone got 84 percent of their individual contributions from large donors.

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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.

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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.

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Report | NJPIRG Law & Policy Center | Democracy

Outside Spending, Outsized Influence

The 2012 elections were by far the most expensive in history thanks primarily to the tidal wave of outside, special interest money triggered by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. The federal Senate and House races in New Jersey, where outside groups spent over $3 million, were no exception.

> Keep Reading
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.

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Blog Post | Democracy

Making Super PACs Illegal | Gideon Weissman

Polling shows that almost 7 out of 10 voters believe that super PACs, the independent expenditure only committees created in the wake of the Supreme Court’s disastrous Citizens United decision, should be illegal. Unfortunately, due to the Court’s backwards interpretation of the first amendment, we cannot legislate away super PACs today. However, there are some very important steps that every level of government – from your city council to the White House - should take right now to mitigate the impact of super PACs before the 2012 election.

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Democracy

Proposal for the State Investment Council of New Jersey | Gideon Weissman

Proposal presented to the State Investment Council of New Jersey on January 26th, 2012: The New Jersey Investment Council should institute a formal policy of supporting shareholder proxy votes that increase disclosure of political contributions.  

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Blog Post

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is an emergency for our democracy. If we don’t take decisive action now, we could end up with Wisconsin-like nightmares across the country come November -- with voters forced to make a lose-lose decision between their health and participating in democracy. To avoid that worst-case scenario, our number one priority right now should be expanding access to the most workable solution to this crisis: vote by mail.

Blog Post

Sometimes, metaphorically speaking, it’s good to see how the sausage is made. In my case, I had that chance when it comes to administering elections.

News Release | U.S. PIRG

U.S. PIRG is calling on every state to establish an emergency universal absentee voting system to eliminate the need to physically go to the polls at a time where doing so could put voters’ health at risk. This would allow all registered voters to be mailed an absentee ballot if physically visiting the polls were unsafe.

Report | U.S. PIRG

U.S. PIRG analyzed the campaign finance reports from 2020 candidates. We found that small donations, and the people who provide them, have a significant voice in the presidential race.

News Release

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

Democracy

A somber anniversary: 10 years after the Citizens United decision

January 15th marked the 10th anniversary of the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling, widely blamed for opening the floodgates to special interest spending in our elections. U.S. legislators joined PIRG and other pro-democracy organizations to decry the ongoing harm caused by the ruling—and to highlight the growth of the pro-reform movement. 

 

Democracy | U.S. PIRG

Small donors are driving the 2020 presidential race

For years, it has been impossible to run for office without relying heavily on large dollar donations. While big money still has disproportionate influence, a combination of technological and cultural changes have made it possible for candidates for president to run for office while relying primarily on small-donor money.

 
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