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 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
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.

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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.

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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
News Release | Maryland PIRG | Democracy

TODAY SUPREME COURT RULED FOR ANOTHER FLOOD OF BIG MONEY

Today the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in McCutcheon v. FEC to strike down overall, or aggregate, contribution limits to candidates and political committees. Maryland PIRG research found that this ruling could bring $1 billion in additional campaign contributions from fewer than 2,800 elite donors through the 2020 election cycle.

> Keep Reading
News Release | Maryland PIRG | Democracy

Maryland PIRG Applauds the Introduction of the Government by the People Act

Maryland PIRG applauded Rep. John Sarbanes (MD) today for introducing new legislation aimed at raising the voices of everyday people in the political process.

> Keep Reading
Media Hit | Democracy

Four years after Citizens United

The decision four years ago opened the floodgates for big money in our elections, enabling a small number of mega-donors to drown out the voices of average Americans. Fortunately, the decision also sparked a movement across the country to reclaim our democracy.

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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.

> 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.

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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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Blog Post

Maryland PIRG’s mission is to deliver persistent, result-oriented public interest activism that protects consumers, encourages a fair, sustainable economy, and fosters democratic government.

Blog Post

Our testimony on HB1017, a bill to establish small donor public financing for general assembly races. It's time to bring this program to the state level.

Blog Post

Our testimony on the bill to allow eligible voters to register to vote, update their registration, and vote on Election Day.

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.

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