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

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).

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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. 

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

New Report Released: Auctioning Democracy: The Rise of Super PACs and the 2012 Election

Today NJPIRG Law and Policy Center, U.S. PIRG Education Fund, and Demos released a new analysis of the funding sources for the campaign finance behemoths, Super PACs. The findings confirmed what many have predicted in the wake of the Supreme Court’s damaging Citizens United decision: since their inception in 2010, Super PACs have been primarily funded by a small segment of very wealthy individuals and business interests, with a small but significant amount of funds coming from secret sources.

> Keep Reading
Media Hit | Democracy, Tax

The Star-Ledger: Tax advocacy group names Honeywell on its "Dirty Thirty" corporations that spend lots on lobbying

Thirty companies, including Morris Township-based Honeywell International, made a tax advocacy group’s list of corporations it says that spend big bucks on lobbying and save millions in federal tax subsidies annually, according to a report released yesterday.

> Keep Reading
News Release | NJPIRG | Democracy, Tax

Thirty Fortune 500 Companies Paid More to Lobby Congress than they Did in Federal Income Taxes

With the second anniversary approaching of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case – which opened the floodgates to corporate spending on elections – NJPIRG and Citizens for Tax Justice reveal 30 corporations, including one based in New Jersey, that spent more to lobby Congress than they did in taxes.

> Keep Reading
Media Hit | Democracy

NJPIRG Op-Ed: Reform needed to identify political campaign funders

With Election Day right around the corner, we should know who is funding our political campaigns. It’s getting harder and harder to tell which corporations are trying to buy our elections and our politicians.

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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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Report | Democracy

Auctioning Democracy

A new report by NJPIRG Law and Policy Center and Demos shows an analysis of the funding sources for the campaign finance behemoths, Super PACs. The findings confirmed what many have predicted in the wake of the Supreme Court’s damaging Citizens United decision: since their inception in 2010, Super PACs have been primarily funded by a small segment of very wealthy individuals and business interests, with a small but significant amount of funds coming from secret sources.

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

Representation Without Taxation

Marking the second anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission case, this report takes a hard look at the lobbying activities of profitable Fortune 500 companies that exploit loopholes and distort the tax code to avoid billions of dollars in taxes.

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Report | NJPIRG Law and Policy Center | Budget, Democracy

Following the Money 2011

The ability to see how government uses the public purse is fundamental to democracy. Transparency in government spending checks corruption, bolsters public confidence, and promotes fiscal responsibility.  This report is the second annual ranking of states’ progress toward new standards of comprehensive, one-stop, one-click budget accountability and accessibility.

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Report | NJPIRG Law and Policy Center | Democracy, Transportation

Greasing The Wheels

In the wake of the Minnesota I-35 bridge collapse there was enormous public outcry and recognition of the need to repair our crumbling infrastructure. Americans expected public officials to respond to the tragedy with a large scale effort to address the nearly 73,000 structurally deficient bridges in this country. The findings in this report suggest that did not happen.

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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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