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 | 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. 

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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.

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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
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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News Release | WISPIRG | Democracy

Wisconsin Needs the GAB

State legislators today introduced a bill that would dismantle the Government Accountability Board, the state’s non-partisan elections and ethics watchdog. If passed, it would have devastating results for good government and democracy in Wisconsin. 

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News Release | WISPIRG | Democracy

Big Donors Dominated 2014 Congressional Races, Including in Wisconsin’s 7th District

The Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group (WISPIRG) was joined today by 2014 Congressional candidate Kelly Westlund to release a new study, “The Money Chase: Moving from Big Money Dominance in the 2014 Midterms to a Small Donor Democracy.” The study, which was written by WISPIRG and Demos, found that the top two vote-getters in the 25 most competitive districts in 2014 got 86 percent of their campaign dollars from individuals giving $200 or more. Only two of the 50 candidates surveyed raised less than 70 percent of their individual contributions from big donors, and seven relied on big donors for more than 95 percent of their individual contributions. 

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News Release | WISPIRG | Democracy

Today Supreme Court Ruled for Another Flood of Big Money

On April 2, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in McCutcheon v. FEC to strike down overall, or aggregate, contribution limits to candidates and political committees. U.S. PIRG 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.

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News Release | WISPIRG | Democracy

Citizens United Resolution Introduced in State Senate

State leaders in the Senate have introduced Senate Joint Resolution 68 (SJR68) that, if passed, would bring a statewide referendum to voters in November 2014 asking whether Wisconsin elected leaders should support a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United.

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News Release | WISPIRG | Democracy

On Day of Oral Argument in McCutcheon V. FEC, Wisconsinites Gather to Push Back on Big Money in Politics, Demand Statewide Referendum

On October 8, the Money Out, Voters In coalition, representing thousands of Wisconsinites and 35 community organizations, gathered at State Capitol to push back on the power of big money in elections, as the U.S. Supreme Court today heard oral arguments in McCutcheon v. FEC. The grassroots movement of Wisconsinites is calling on the state legislature and Governor to give the people of Wisconsin a say in the future of our democracy and pass Assembly Joint Resolution 50 (AJR50), which would bring a statewide referendum to the people in November 2014, asking voters whether Wisconsin elected leaders should support a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United.  Citizens United opened the floodgates to outside spending in elections.

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Media Hit | Democracy

We don’t need more money in politics

Outside the Capitol, citizens of every political stripe believe money is playing far too great a role in elections, is having a poisonous effect on governing and needs to be reined in.  But a bill already passed by the state Assembly and headed to the state Senate this fall takes the position that there is not enough big money in politics and even larger campaign contributions are needed.

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Report | WISPIRG Foundation, People for the American Way Foundation | Democracy

Outside Spending, Outsized Influence

Super PACs dominated the 2012 Senate election between Tammy Baldwin and Tommy Thompson, providing an avenue for floods of out-of-state money to fill WIsconsin's airwaves with negative ads. Outside groups (not the candidates or party committees) spent almost $32 million and virtually all of that money (99.2%) came from out of state groups. Super PACs allowed big money special interests to flood the Wisconsin elections, blocking regular WI voter out of the political discourse.

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Report | U.S. PIRG Education Fund and Center for Media and Democracy | Democracy

Elections Confidential

Elections Confidential reveals, to the extent possible, the dark side of the post-Citizens United election landscape. Secret donors used "dark money" groups that don't have to disclose their donors, because before Citizens United they weren't allowed to spend on elections in order to hide their identity.

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Report | WISPIRG FOundation and Demos | Democracy

Billion Dollar Democracy

Billion Dollar Democracy is the final edition in our series of reports analyzing the role of money in the 2012 elections. The first presidential election since Citizens United lived up to the hype, with outside groups blowing away previous records for spending. Our discourse got more negative than ever before, with secret organizations allowing anonymous donors to bankroll nasty attack ads. Regular people's voices were drowned out of the process, with big time mega-donors spending millions in their attempt to buy our democracy.

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Report | WISPIRG and Demos | Democracy

Distorted Democracy: Post-Election Spending Analysis

New analysis of Federal Election Commission data through Election Day shows that just a few big outside spenders drowned out small donors in the 2012 election cycle. The Supreme Court's Citizens United allows wealthy special interests to amplify their voices far above the average citizen. This will continue the cycle of major donors receiving the greatest political access and setting the agenda for our government in Washington and in Madison, interfering with our government's ability to function in the best interests of the public at-large.

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Report | WISPIRG Foundation | Democracy

Million Dollar Megaphones

Outside spending on the Wisconsin senatorial race has already exceeded $4.5 million. With the presidential campaign heating up and Wisconsin named as a battleground state, more secret money is expected to flow into the state to influence the votes of Wisconsinites. Much about who funds these efforts and how this funding is spent remains a mystery, according to a report analyzing the latest campaign filings. This report provides a detailed analysis of Federal Election Commission (FEC) data and secondary sources on outside spending and Super PAC fundraising for 2012 election cycle.

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Blog Post | Democracy

Call on the WI Legislature to Put it to the People on Citizens United

Citizens United is undermining the very principals of our democracy.

Click Here to demand a people's referendum so that the people of WI can vote on this issue.

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Blog Post | Democracy

Voters Reject Big Money in Politics, Now It’s Time for Reform

Voters sent a message last Tuesday, showing resounding support for our leaders to take steps to deal with the outsized influence of big money in our elections, including a resolution passed in Eau Claire County, WI endorsing a Constitutional Amendment to overturn Citizens United.

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Blog Post | Democracy

Why Target is Still a Target | Bruce Speight

When Target’s CEO Gregg Steinhafel used general treasury funds, money that rightfully belongs to the corporation’s shareholders, to support a group backing a candidate known for his outspoken anti-LGBT positions, it was more than a blemish on the reputation of a corporation that brands itself as progressive. That irresponsible contribution was a violation of both shareholder and public trust and, not surprisingly, it resulted in scandal and boycotts that threatened the assets of shareholders who never authorized the use of their money for political spending.

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Blog Post | Democracy

Who Owns Big Oil? We do! | Bruce Speight

The American Petroleum Institute has a new public image campaign- www.whoownsbigoil.org The purpose of this website, presumably, is to convince us that if we raise taxes on hugely profitable corporations we will only be hurting ourselves. Why? Because we are all shareholders of those corporations and when they are taxed we suffer.

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Blog Post | Democracy

Making Super PACs Illegal | Bruce Speight

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.

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