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 | 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.

> Keep Reading
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.

> Keep Reading
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

Pages

News Release | Democracy

The DISCLOSE Act is a Critical First Step to Prevent a Corporate Takeover of Democracy

Thursday morning, the long-awaited Schumer-Van Hollen legislation was introduced with bi-partisan support as a response to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission.

> Keep Reading

Fast track the citizens united bill

Not so long ago, "Citizens United vs. the Federal Elections Commission" was just a pending obscure decision facing the Supreme Court.

But on January 21, with a cataclysmic ruling, what was once only on the minds of a few fretting campaign finance reformers made its way to America's front pages.

> Keep Reading
Media Hit | Democracy

Ruling: Influence peddling or free speech?

Republicans are celebrating the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to relax campaign-finance laws regulating corporations and labor unions, while Democrats say Thursday's decision will allow companies to buy and sell elections.

> Keep Reading

Federal consumer protection bill draws praise, wariness

Federal legislation intended to add new protections for financial products is drawing some opposition from banks and financial planners, but support from consumer advocates who say the safeguards are needed.

> Keep Reading

Fraud, Failure No Deterrent to Federal Contract Awards

Companies with immediate past histories of shoddy work and fraudulent practices still receive billions of dollars in federal contracts, according to a new report by the Maryland PIRG Foundation.

> Keep Reading

Pages

News Release | Maryland PIRG

BALTIMORE -- Maryland held its primary election Tuesday. The primary was originally scheduled for April 28, but because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), Gov. Larry Hogan delayed it and attempted to send absentee ballots to all active voters.

Blog Post

It is Election Day in Maryland and today’s election is critically important for Baltimore, Maryland, and the entire country.

Blog Post

Voting by mail is a safe and secure way to participate during the COVID-19 crisis, so everyone who can vote by mail should vote by mail.

News Release | Maryland PIRG

Maryland held its special election for the 7th District Tuesday. Because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, the State Board of Elections and Governor Larry Hogan moved the election to vote by mail with limited in person voting. Maryland PIRG, along with allies, made various recommendations to the State Board of Elections and the governor on how best to run the elections.

Blog Post

We submitted the following comments to the State Board of Elections in advance of their meeting on April 2, 2020.

Democracy

Maryland PIRG helps ensure that all Marylanders can vote safely in the state's primary

On April 1, Maryland PIRG sent a letter urging the State Board of Elections to ensure that all Marylanders can vote safely in their June 2 primary by recommending limited in-person voting for those that need it, in addition to universal vote-by-mail. The Board then recommended this course of action to Gov. Larry Hogan, who ratified it on April 12.

 

Democracy

Baltimore's effort to empower small donors in elections picks up momentum

Wealthy donors have long had an outsized influence on our elections, but Baltimore is helping to change that. City Councilman Kristerfer Burnett has introduced a bill to fully fund the Baltimore Fair Elections program, which puts small donors front and center.

 

Democracy

A somber anniversary: 10 years after the Citizens United decision

January 15th marked the 10th anniversary of the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling, widely blamed for opening the floodgates to special interest spending in our elections. U.S. legislators joined PIRG and other pro-democracy organizations to decry the ongoing harm caused by the ruling—and to highlight the growth of the pro-reform movement. 

 

Democracy | U.S. PIRG

Small donors are driving the 2020 presidential race

For years, it has been impossible to run for office without relying heavily on large dollar donations. While big money still has disproportionate influence, a combination of technological and cultural changes have made it possible for candidates for president to run for office while relying primarily on small-donor money.

 
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