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 | 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
Report | NJPIRG Law & Policy Center | Democracy

Billion-Dollar Democracy

The first presidential election since Citizens United lived up to its hype, with unprecedented outside spending from new sources making headlines. Demos and NJPIRG Law & Policy Center analysis of reports from campaigns, parties, and outside spenders to the Federal Election Commission found that our big money system distorts democracy and creates clear winners and losers: Wealthy Donors Over Average Citizens, Special Interests Over the Public Interest, Incumbents Over Challengers & Grassroots Candidates, Secret Spenders Over Voters Seeking Accountability.

> Keep Reading
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

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News Release | NJPIRG Law and Policy Center | Budget, Democracy

New Jersey Earns "C+" in Annual Report on Transparency of Government Spending

New Jersey got a “C+” when it comes to openness about government spending, according to Following the Money 2011: How the States Rank on Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data, the second annual report of its kind by the New Jersey Public Interest Research Group (NJPIRG).  Included with the report is aninteractive online tool that allows users to view what New Jersey is doing best and worst compared to other states’ transparency practices.

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Media Hit | Democracy

newjerseynewsroom.com: U.S. Supreme Court decision on campaign finance blasted by Jerseyans

In a shocking burst of judicial activism, the Supreme Court decided that corporations should be treated in the same manner as ordinary citizens and be allowed to spend the massive amounts of money they accumulate on direct attack ads for or against members of Congress.

> Keep Reading

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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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