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

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
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.

> 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.

> Keep Reading
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.

> Keep Reading
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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News Release | Maryland PIRG | Democracy

Key MoCo Committee Funds Groundbreaking Fair Elections Program

(Rockville) - The Montgomery County Council held public hearings this week on the proposed FY16 budget. Concerned citizens testified at each hearing, calling on the County Council to put $2 million into the budget to fund fair elections (Public Election Fund).

> Keep Reading
News Release | Maryland PIRG Foundation | Democracy

Congressmen Sarbanes, Van Hollen join Maryland PIRG and students at roundtable discussion on solutions to big money in elections

Maryland PIRG, joined today by Congressman Chris Van Hollen (MD8) Congressman John Sarbanes (MD3), former Montgomery County Councilman Phil Andrews, University of Maryland Government and Politics professor Michael Spivey, and U.S. PIRG Democracy Campaign Director Dan Smith and a crowd of students gathered at the University of Maryland to participate in a roundtable discussion about the problem of big money in politics, the available solutions, and what we can do here in Maryland to fix it.

> Keep Reading
News Release | Maryland PIRG | Democracy

MaryPIRG Discussion on Money in Politics with Rep. Chris Van Hollen (MD8) and Rep. John Sarbanes (MD3)

UMD MaryPIRG will host a panel discussion on money in politics and small donor campaign financing. The event will kick off with a panel and discussion followed by a screening of John Ennis’ film, Pay 2 Play, which looks into the effects of dark money influence on American politics.

> Keep Reading
News Release | Maryland PIRG | Democracy

National Groups and Investors Urge Maryland Legislature to Support Shareholders United Bill

Today, Maryland PIRG’s federal office, U.S. PIRG, joined a diverse group of twenty national advocacy organizations and investors calling on the Maryland General Assembly to support of the Shareholders United bill.

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News Release | Maryland PIRG | Democracy

Maryland PIRG Applauds Reintroduction of Reform Legislation on the Fifth Anniversary of Citizens United

“On the fifth anniversary of the wrong-headed Citizens United decision, the need to get big money out of our elections couldn’t be greater. Maryland PIRG applauds the reintroduction of critical reform legislation by over a dozen leaders in Congress today, including the Democracy for All Amendment, introduced by Senator Tom Udall, and the Government by the People Act, introduced by Maryland Rep. John Sarbanes.

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Report | Budget, Democracy

Representation Without Taxation

Marking the second anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission case, this report takes a hard look at the lobbying activities of profitable Fortune 500 companies that exploit loopholes and distort the tax code to avoid billions of dollars in taxes.

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Report | Maryland PIRG | Democracy

Honest Enforcement

Some argue that last year’s scandals, which led to the conviction of two congressmen and several top aides, are evidence that ethics enforcement in Congress works. The actual facts leading up to the convictions, however, are more an indictment of the current process than a testament to its success.

> Keep Reading
Report | Maryland PIRG Foundation | Budget, Democracy, Financial Reform

Forgiving Fraud and Failure

Companies with immediate past histories of shoddy work and fraudulent practices are being rewarded with billions of dollars in federal contracts. The data suggest that the process by which the federal government currently spends $422 billion per year in taxpayer funds is insufficient to ensure that the American people receive good quality for goods and services purchased for the American people.

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Report | Maryland PIRG Foundation | Democracy

The Wealth Primary

Despite the recent corruption scandals in Washington DC, the most significant problem with money in politics is that large contributions, which only a fraction of the American public can afford to make, unduly influence who runs for office and who wins elections in the United States.

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Blog Post | Democracy

Meeting with Congressmen John Sarbanes | Emily Scarr

Inspired by our meeting with Congressman John Sarbanes to support his Government By the People Act that encourages political participation through small donor incentive programs for election funding.

 

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Blog Post | Democracy

IRS Scandal Highlights Need for Increased Transparency in Campaign Financing | Jenny Levin

It’s up to the IRS to ensure that nonprofits are not being used as illicit vehicles to funnel untraceable money into our elections. However the agency’s handling of this responsibility has been thoroughly outrageous, the latest scandal being just the latest example of disturbing action—or, as has been more often the case, inaction.

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Blog Post | Democracy

Maryland PIRG 2013 Testimony: Same Day Registration | Jenny Levin

Same day registration during the early voting period has potential to increase voter turnout among all demographics, but most especially among groups that have historically experienced low turnout, such as young voters.

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Blog Post | Democracy

Maryland PIRG 2013 Testimony: Election Day Registration | Jenny Levin

Election Day registration has potential to increase voter turnout across the board.

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Blog Post | Democracy

Maryland PIRG 2013 Testimony: Voter ID | Jenny Levin

Voter ID would exacerbate low voter turnout, a major problem confronting our democracy.

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