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

Introducing the Government By the People Act | Emily Scarr

Today, Rep. John Sarbanes introduced the Government by the People Act, a small donor empowerment bill aimed at providing an equal voice to everyday voters currently drowned out by super PACs and wealthy contributors.

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Democracy

Testimony on SB 64 – Voter Registration - Affiliating With a Party | Emily Scarr

Common Cause Maryland, Maryland PIRG, and the ACLU of Maryland support SB 64 which would allow unaffiliated, registered voters to change their registration to a party during early voting period.

> Keep Reading
News Release | Maryland PIRG and the Fair Elections Howard Coalition | Democracy

Howard County Voters Vote for Fair Elections by Passing Ballot Question A

Columbia, MD – On Tuesday night, Howard County voters approved a charter amendment to bring balance to our democracy and make local government more representative and accountable to everyday people. 

The win lays the groundwork for a citizen-funded elections program for county council and county executive races. The new program will provide matching funds for small donor contributions to candidates who don’t accept large or corporate contributions.

> Keep Reading
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

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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.

> 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.

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Blog Post | Democracy

Maryland PIRG 2013 Testimony: HB 1499 | Jenny Levin

Maryland PIRG supports passage of HB 1499, which includes important reforms to increase transparency in campaign finance, close loopholes that allow big donors and corporations outsized influence in politics, and enables local governments to introduce public financing of elections.

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Democracy

Voting Rights Take Center Stage at the General Assembly | Laura Muth

Last week was a big week in Maryland politics. One of Maryland PIRG’s top priorities, same-day voter registration (SDR), got plenty of airtime. We worked with a broad coalition of partners to provide testimony on a bill introduced by the governor that aims to expand voting rights by letting eligible Marylanders to register to vote at polling places during the early voting period, as well as increasing the number of early voting days to eight and increasing the number of polling places during early voting.

> Keep Reading
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.

> Keep Reading
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.

> Keep Reading
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.

> Keep Reading

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Blog Post

Maryland's 90 day legislative session starts today. Here are our top priorities.

Blog Post

On Tuesday, voters approved 3 ballot questions backed by Maryland PIRG, each playing an important roll in strengthening our democracy.

News Release

On Tuesday, Baltimore City voters approved an amendment to the city charter to create the Fair Election Fund and Commission. Proponents of the measure say it will bring balance to our democracy and make city government more representative and accountable to everyday people.

Blog Post

Another Maryland county has taken action to offset the influence of wealthy special interests over our elections.

Blog Post

On July 30, Baltimore Mayor Catherine E. Pugh signed the proposed amendment, thereby allowing voters to decide whether the city should allow public funding of local election campaigns. If voters approve the amendment, the city would match small-dollar donations for eligible candidates starting in the 2024 election.

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