Democracy For The People

Maryland 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

Blog Post | Democracy

Testimony on SB 64 – Voter Registration - Affiliating With a Party | Emily Scarr

Common Cause Maryland, Maryland PIRG, and the ACLU of Maryland support SB 64 which would allow unaffiliated, registered voters to change their registration to a party during early voting period.

> Keep Reading
News Release | Maryland PIRG and the Fair Elections Howard Coalition | Democracy

Howard County Voters Vote for Fair Elections by Passing Ballot Question A

Columbia, MD – On Tuesday night, Howard County voters approved a charter amendment to bring balance to our democracy and make local government more representative and accountable to everyday people. 

The win lays the groundwork for a citizen-funded elections program for county council and county executive races. The new program will provide matching funds for small donor contributions to candidates who don’t accept large or corporate contributions.

> Keep Reading
News Release | Maryland PIRG | Democracy

As Early Voting Begins in Maryland, Howard County Voters Have Chance To Improve Democracy By Voting Yes For Question A

With the growing public concern over big money in politics, Howard County voters will have a chance to institute an innovative citizen funded election program to help bring balance to local government and the democratic process. If approved, Question A will amend the Howard County Charter and enable the County Council to establish the Citizens’ Election Fund, a small donor campaign finance system for County Council and County Executive races.

> Keep Reading
News Release | Democracy

Grassroots Coalition Launches Campaign for Yes on Question A in Howard County

A packed crowd gathered last night at Kelsey’s Restaurant in Ellicott City to officially launch “Yes on A! For the Citizens Election Fund.” The campaign is building support for ballot question A, which would establish a Citizens’ Election Fund to create a small donor empowerment program for Howard County elections.

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Blog Post | Democracy

Montgomery County boldly supports fair elections | Emily Scarr

The Montgomery and Howard County Councils are boldly moving forward on a new way to fund elections.

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News Release | Maryland PIRG and Fair Elections Maryland | Democracy

Montgomery County Increases Investment in Groundbreaking Fair Elections Program

(Rockville) – Today the Montgomery County Council made a critical investment in democracy by adding $5 million to its public election fund in its FY2017 budget. While this amount is only a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of the County’s overall budget, it represents a real commitment to amplifying the voices of small donors in county politics and diluting the influence of wealthy special interests. With adequate funding, the program will be up and running for the next county elections, encouraging more voters to participate in county elections and providing opportunities for a wider range of candidates to run for office.

> Keep Reading
News Release | Democracy

Howard County Council Passes Resolution for Citizens’ Election Fund

Ellicott City – The Howard County Council took a big step forward today towards establishing a small donor incentive program for county elections. The Council voted 4-1 to pass a resolution to amend the County Charter to establish a citizens’ election fund. Now, Howard County voters will vote to authorize the fund through a ballot initiative in November.

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News Release | Maryland PIRG and Fair Elections Maryland | Democracy

Howard County Councilmembers Introduce Fair Elections Bill

Ellicott City – Howard County Councilmembers Jon Weinstein and Jen Terrasa took a significant step forward today for increasing citizen engagement in elections by introducing legislation to establish a small donor incentive system for county races. If passed by the Council, Howard County voters will vote to authorize “citizen funded campaigns” through a ballot initiative in November.

> Keep Reading
News Release | Fair Elections Maryland Coalition | Democracy

Montgomery County Funds Groundbreaking Fair Elections Program

(Rockville) - The Montgomery County Council took an important step forward for fair elections in its FY16 budget by seeding the Public Campaign fund with a $1 million.

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Report | US PIRG, Center for Media and Democracy | Democracy

Elections Confidential

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Mystery donors poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the 2012 elections via nonprofits and shell corporations, despite widespread public support for disclosure and decades of legal precedent supporting the public’s right to know the sources of election-related spending. A new report from the U.S. PIRG Education Fund and the Center for Media and Democracy found that contributions from phony for-profit corporations accounted for nearly 17 percent of all business donations to Super PACs.

> Keep Reading
Report | Demos and Maryland PIRG | 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.
Dēmos and Maryland PIRG Foundation 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.

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Report | Maryland PIRG and Demos | 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.

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Report | Common Cause | Consumer Protection, Democracy

TOXIC SPENDING

Since passage of the Toxic Substances Control Act in 1976, the debate over disclosing and reducing the risks that certain chemicals pose to human health and the environment has been dominated by two important trends. First is the growing body of evidence that certain chemicals are harmful to human health, and the growing number of chemicals in daily use whose effects on human health have not been fully studied.

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Report | U.S. PIRG Education Fund and Demos | Democracy

Million-Dollar Megaphones

Outside spending by organizations that aggregate unlimited contributions from wealthy individuals and institutions is playing a significant role in the 2012 election cycle, and much of it is not disclosed.

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Blog Post | Democracy

Maryland Counties move towards small donor democracy | Emily Scarr

Yesterday, two Maryland Counties made significant progress in their efforts to put citizens back in the drivers seat of their democracy.

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Blog Post | Democracy

Maryland Senate Committee Considers Universal Voter Registration | Emily Scarr

Today, a Maryland Senate Committee is holding a hearing on Universal Voter Registration. Maryland PIRG student leader Cassidy is Annapolis to testify, and here is our written testimony.

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Blog Post | Democracy

Senator Paul Pinsky introduces Small Donor Empowerment Legislation | Emily Scarr

Today, the Senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee held a hearing on SB428,  a bill to establish a pilot program for small donor financing for state elections. The program is designed to encourage candidates to voluntarily reject large and corporate contributions by providing limited matching funds for small donations from their constituents. This serves the dual purpose of reducing corporate and mega donor campaign spending and re-engaging the community in the electoral process.

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Blog Post | Democracy

Campaign Update: Funding Fair Elections in Montgomery County | Emily Scarr

Last fall, the Montgomery County Council voted UNANIMOUSLY to establish a program to get big money out of local elections and empower small donors. Unfortunately, County Executive Leggett did not include funding for the program in the budget he released last month, so we're working to make sure the County Council fulfills their commitment to fund the program.

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