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

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.

> Keep Reading
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.

> Keep Reading
Result | Democracy

Giving more Americans a greater voice in our elections

In our democracy, the size of your wallet shouldn’t determine the volume of your voice. In 2015, we helped win reforms in Maine and Seattle to ensure that more Americans have a greater say in our elections. Seattle’s Initiative-122 empowers small donors with “democracy vouchers” that can be donated to local candidates and lowers the cap on contributions. In Maine, the state’s Clean Elections Act was improved by strengthening campaign finance disclosure laws and offering qualifying candidates increased public funding.

> Keep Reading


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.

> Keep Reading
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
News Release | Maryland PIRG | Democracy

Statement on today’s Senate vote on the constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United

“Today’s vote was an incredible milestone in the fight to reclaim our democracy. The Citizens United decision unleashed a tide of big money from mega-donors and super PACs into our elections, which has threatened to drown out the voices of ordinary Americans.

> Keep Reading
Media Hit | Democracy

Money & Politics

How will recent campaign finance rulings by the Supreme Court and by the Maryland Board of Elections affect the governor’s race and other state campaigns? How do Maryland campaign finance laws compare to those of other states? Our guests: Andy Kroll, senior reporter for Mother Jones; Bruce Marcus, chair of the bipartisan state commission that looked at Maryland’s campaign finance structure; and Emily Scarr, director of Maryland’s Public Interest Research Group.

> Keep Reading
Media Hit | Democracy

Supreme Court Gets It Wrong (again) On Campaign Finance

The court's decision to eliminate federal limits on the total amount of money that mega-donors can contribute during an election cycle empowers a tiny group of fewer than 3,000 elite donors to spend an additional billion dollars in our elections through 2020.

> Keep Reading


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