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

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). 

> Keep Reading
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.

> 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. 

> Keep Reading
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.

> Keep Reading
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.

> Keep Reading

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News Release | WISPIRG | Democracy

Distorted Democracy: Big Money and Dark Money in the 2012 Elections

Outside spending on the Wisconsin senatorial race is the third highest of any race in the nation, at over $30 million. Only the presidential race and the campaign for Virginia's senate seat have seen more outside money pouring in to influence voters. This new analysis of pre-election data from the Federal Election Commission and other sources shows that outside spending in the first presidential election cycle since Citizens United is living up to the hype. With no limits on campaign spending Super PACs and Dark Money groups have used massive donations from a small number of wealthy donors to flood our elections with at least $1.1 billion dollars in outside spending. This new data is an update to the Million Dollar Megaphones report released in September, with new data on the last two months of election spending.

> Keep Reading
Media Hit | Democracy

Super PACs, secret donors dominate 2012 campaign in WI

The Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group (WISPIRG) has found that Super PACs and other groups, whose donors often remain anonymous, have already spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to persuade voters in presidential battleground states like Wisconsin.

> Keep Reading
Media Hit | Democracy

Secret Money Pours into Election

New report details secret money pouring into Wisconsin elections. Outside spending organizations reported $167.5 million in spending to the Federal Election Commission (FEC). “The most disturbing thing that we found was that the vast majority of super PAC money and outside spending in our elections is coming from just a few people, just a few very, very wealthy people.”

> Keep Reading
News Release | WISPIRG Foundation | Democracy

AS SECRET MONEY POURS INTO WISCONSIN, NEW REPORT DETAILS LATEST NUMBERS ON OUTSIDE SPENDING FOR 2012 ELECTIONS

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.

> Keep Reading
News Release | WISPIRG | Democracy

Groups Call for Leg Hearings in Wake of Recall Elections

Twenty organizations have submitted a letter to state legislative leaders urging them to hold hearings this summer to give the public opportunities to provide them feedback on the recall elections we've had in Wisconsin and the need for improved transparency and accountability in all our elections, to set the stage for a special legislative session on reform later this year.

> Keep Reading

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