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 | Democracy

Our Statement Regarding the President’s “Commission on Election Integrity”

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

> Keep Reading
News Release | WISPIRG | Democracy

Seven Years After Citizens United, Reforms Advance Around the Country

Seven years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, more money than ever is pouring into election races. The Court’s decision has also led to a powerful grassroots response that is making big gains for campaign finance reform around the country. More than 100 communities in Wisconsin and eighteen states have passed resolutions or referenda to overturn Citizens United, while others have enacted reforms empowering everyday voters over big donors in elections.

> Keep Reading
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
News Release | WISPIRG Foundation | Democracy

REPORT: 61% of Money in WI Senate Race Comes from Out-of-State

A new report by the WISPIRG Foundation and the U.S. PIRG Education Fund shows that 77 percent of funding in the 34 U.S. senate races happening nationwide comes from out-of-state. Outside Influence: Out-of-State Money in the 2016 Senate Elections highlights the share of money that candidates, PACs, super PACs, and party committees have raised from outside the state they are spending on. In Wisconsin, the report finds that 61 percent of election funding in this year’s U.S. senate race comes from out-of-state.

> Keep Reading
Report | U.S. PIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Outside Influence: Out-of-state money in the 2016 senate elections

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.

> Keep Reading

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News Release | Democracy

Our Statement Regarding the President’s “Commission on Election Integrity”

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

> Keep Reading
News Release | WISPIRG | Democracy

Seven Years After Citizens United, Reforms Advance Around the Country

Seven years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, more money than ever is pouring into election races. The Court’s decision has also led to a powerful grassroots response that is making big gains for campaign finance reform around the country. More than 100 communities in Wisconsin and eighteen states have passed resolutions or referenda to overturn Citizens United, while others have enacted reforms empowering everyday voters over big donors in elections.

> Keep Reading
News Release | WISPIRG Foundation | Democracy

REPORT: 61% of Money in WI Senate Race Comes from Out-of-State

A new report by the WISPIRG Foundation and the U.S. PIRG Education Fund shows that 77 percent of funding in the 34 U.S. senate races happening nationwide comes from out-of-state. Outside Influence: Out-of-State Money in the 2016 Senate Elections highlights the share of money that candidates, PACs, super PACs, and party committees have raised from outside the state they are spending on. In Wisconsin, the report finds that 61 percent of election funding in this year’s U.S. senate race comes from out-of-state.

> Keep Reading
News Release | WISPIRG | Democracy

“Public Telling” Highlights Opposition, Solutions to Big Money Dominance in Elections

Dozens of Wisconsinites voiced their concerns over the growing dominance of big donors and moneyed special interests in our elections at a “public telling” hosted by the Money Out, Voters In Wisconsin coalition at the Capitol on Thursday. Members of the public were joined by Congressman Mark Pocan, State Representatives Lisa Subeck and Chris Taylor, former DNR Deputy Chief Conservation Warden Tom Thoresen and other good government advocates in “testifying” to cut-outs of state leaders who have refused to hear proposals that would reduce the influence of Big Money in politics. Speakers also highlighted meaningful reforms taking hold across the country and called on Wisconsin to follow suit. 

> Keep Reading
News Release | WISPIRG | Democracy

Testimony by WISPIRG Director Peter Skopec on Proposed Campaign Finance Deform, GAB Reorganization Bills

WISPIRG Director Peter Skopec provided the following testimony to joint legislative committee members today, who held a public hearing on the proposed gutting of Wisconsin’s campaign finance laws and the dismantling of the Government Accountability Board.

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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.

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Result | Democracy

Registering Young Voters

During the past four election cycles, WISPIRG’s New Voters Project has registered more than 160,000 18- to 24-year-olds and increased voter participation among young voters.

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Result | Democracy

Enforcing Wisconsin's Ethics Laws

In 2007, a WISPIRG-backed bill enforcing our state’s ethics laws was passed and signed into law. The new legislation promotes more vigorous enforcement of Wisconsin’s state ethics code and campaign finance laws.

> Keep Reading
Report | U.S. PIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Outside Influence: Out-of-state money in the 2016 senate elections

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.

> Keep Reading
Report | WISPIRG | Democracy

The Money Chase

Five years after the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. FEC decision, what are the roles of large donors and average voters in selecting and supporting candidates for Congress? This report examines the role of money in the 2014 congressional elections from both quantitative and qualitative perspectives, and demonstrates how matching small political contributions with limited public funds can change the campaign landscape for grassroots candidates.

> Keep Reading
Report | WISPIRG Foundation 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.

> Keep Reading
Report | WISPIRG Foundation | 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.

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Report | WISPIRG | 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 $123,200.1 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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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
Blog Post | Democracy

Six Twitter users to follow for all things democracy

This election cycle news about money in politics, election fiascos and voting rights is breaking at the speed of, well, Twitter. If you want to stay up-to-date, we’ve got your back.

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Democracy

Oppose AB225 - More Big Money in WI Elections Bill | Bruce Speight

Testimony by WISPIRG's Bruce Speight regarding AB225, a bill that, if passed, would double campaign contribution limits in WIsconsin.  Political power in Wisconsin and across the country is already concentrated in the hands of an elite fraction of the population.  Increasing contribution limits will give an even bigger megaphone to this miniscule fraction of people who can write the biggest checks. 

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Blog Post | Democracy

Wisconsin Bill Would Double Campaign Contribution Limits, Increase Big Money in Politics | Bruce Speight

On June 10, the Wisconsin General Assembly passed a bill that, if passed by the Senate, would double the contribution limits to Wisconsin political campaigns and allow big money to further drown out the voices of Wisconsin voters. The bill also contains a provision to implement an online registration system — a great idea, but not enough to make this big-money bill worth passing.
 

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Blog Post | Democracy

IRS Scandal Highlights Need for Increased Transparency in Campaign Financing | Bruce Speight

The public has long agreed that transparency in campaign spending is critical to the integrity of our democracy. The Supreme Court acknowledged this common-sense proposition in its notorious 2010 Citizens United decision: even as they opened the door for dark money to enter our elections by allowing all corporations, including nonprofits, to spend directly on elections, the majority of Justices reaffirmed the long-standing notion that the identity of campaign donors must be disclosed.
 

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