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

Report | Maryland PIRG Foundation | Democracy

Boosting the Impact of Small Donors

The vast majority of the funds raised for the 2016 election have come from wealthy donors making contributions exponentially larger than most Americans can afford, typically to super PACs and other organizations that can legally accept donations of any size. This report examines how the 2016 presidential race would be reshaped by a public financing system that amplifies the voices of small donors in our elections.

> 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.

> Keep Reading
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
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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News Release | Maryland PIRG Foundation | Democracy

Outside electoral spending gives megadonors an outsized voice

As the dust begins to clear on this year’s midterms, it is clear that deep-pocketed donors played an outsized role in funding our elections.  According to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, as of reporting on Election Day, spending from Super PACs, c(4)s, and other outside groups reached $553 million, 80% higher than similar spending in the 2010 midterm elections.  And this spending is disproportionately from megadonors – in fact, according to campaign reporting to date, just 17 donors to Super PACs spent as much as the at least 793,000 small donors to Congressional candidates.

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News Release | Maryland PIRG Foundation and Demos | Democracy

Big Money Playing an Outsized Role in Maryland Elections

In Maryland’s congressional primaries, bigger wallets give a small set of mega-donors an outsized voice, according to new information released today by the Maryland PIRG Foundation and Demos. Just 122 donors who gave $1,000 or more to candidates in the primaries outspent the at least 2,440 small donors who gave less than $200, and 63% of all candidate contributions came from donors giving chunks of $1,000 or more.

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

Montgomery County Passes Small-Donor Campaign Finance Reform

Rockville, MD – The Montgomery County Council today took a huge step forward for fair elections by passing with a unanimous vote Bill 16-14, creating a program for county council and executive campaigns that would fight big money interests by empowering small donors in County elections.

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News Release | Maryland PIRG | Democracy

Federal Campaign Spending Data Confirms Escalation for Mega-donors and Super PAC's

New campaign finance data from the FEC confirms that this year’s congressional election will mark yet another escalation for mega-donors and Super PACs to be able to drown out the voices of ordinary Americans.

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News Release | Fair Elections Maryland Coalition | Democracy

Key Montgomery County Committee Advances Bill for Fair Elections Campaign Finance Reform

Rockville, MD – The Montgomery County Government Operations Committee today took a huge step forward for fair elections by passing Bill 16-14, which creates a program for county council and executive campaigns that would fight big money interests by empowering small donors in County elections.

> Keep Reading

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Blog Post | Democracy

U.S. PIRG Democracy Advocate on summary reversal in American Tradition Partnership vs. Bullock

Today the Supreme Court passed on the opportunity to revisit its disastrous 2010 Citizens United decision—which is wreaking havoc on democracy—and it has done so in a way that avoids giving the American public a much deserved explanation.

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Blog Post | Democracy

Why Target is Still a Target

Two years ago, the public spoke out against the Supreme Court’s decision to allow unlimited corporate spending in politics when consumers boycotted Target Corporation for controversial political spending in Minnesota’s state elections. 

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

Testimony on Electronic Signatures in Voter Registration | Jenny Levin

The Maryland Public Interest Group supports the passage of HB 173, authorizing an applicant registering to vote at a voter registration agency to consent to the use of an electronic copy of the applicant's signature that is on file with the voter registration agency as the applicant's signature for the application being submitted; and requiring a voter registration agency to transmit an electronic copy of the signature of specified applicants for voter registration to the State Board within 5 days.

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