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

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 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
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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News Release | Maryland PIRG and Demos | Democracy

Study Shows Big Donors Dominated Competitive 2014 Congressional Races

New stude finds 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 | Maryland PIRG | Democracy

Maryland PIRG opposes proposal to greatly increase contribution limits as part of the omnibus spending bill

"In the midterms a month ago, we all saw yet another reminder of the dominance of big money in our elections. Yet, instead of advancing common-sense solutions to raise the voices of small donors, set reasonable limits on big money, and ensure that the public knows where campaign money comes from, Congress is now poised to approve changes to campaign finance laws that would give megadonors an even louder voice.  Most Americans find it hard to afford giving even one or two hundred dollars to candidates and causes they believe in, but these revisions would allow big donors to give over $200,000 a year to party committees.

> Keep Reading
News Release | Maryland PIRG | Democracy

Supreme Court decision added $24.8 million in additional campaign spending by mega-donors

The Supreme Court’s most recent decision allowing more big money into our elections, April’s McCutcheon case, allowed $24.8 million in additional campaign spending by megadonors, according to new information released today by Maryland PIRG

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News Release | Maryland PIRG and Demos | Democracy

Congressional Races Dominated by Big Money

In Maryland’s just-concluded congressional elections, bigger wallets gave mega-donors an outsized voice, according to new information released today by Maryland PIRG and Demos (report attached below).  The analysis found that in Maryland, candidates got 85 percent of their contributions from individuals from donors giving $200 or more – and nationally, 84% of individual contributions came from these larger donors.  Larger donors also played a central role in contributions to PACs, Super PACs, and party committees – when their fundraising is included with that of candidates, seven out of every ten dollars in individual contributions came from donors giving $200 or more.

> Keep Reading
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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Blog Post | Democracy

Maryland PIRG New Voters Project Hits the Streets | Jenny Levin

The Maryland PIRG New Voters Project is a nonpartisan effort to help register young people and get them to the polls on Election Day. We believe the best way to get political leaders to pay attention to young people and our issues is to register and vote.

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Blog Post | Democracy

Youth vote a major factor in upcoming election | Jenny Levin

If you're between the ages of 18 and 30, you've been in the news a lot lately. Young voters can have a big impact this election, and here's how.

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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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