Democracy For The People

CALPIRG Education Fund is pushing back against big money in our elections and working to educate the public about the benefits 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: 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 giving 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. 

It's time to reclaim our democracy and bring it back to the principle of one person, one vote. 

RECLAIMING OUR DEMOCRACY

Small donor empowerment programs that encourage the participation of the average American in the political system are a key weapon in the fight to reclaim our democracy. These programs provide public matching funds to campaigns for small donations and offer tax credits to encourage everyday citizens to make small campaign contributions.  

These programs can help focus candidates for office on seeking the broad support of the public rather than the narrow support of a few moneyed interests and help bring more ordinary citizens into the process. Their track record is impressive – for example, under New York City’s program, in 2013 participating City Council candidates got 61% of their contributions from small donations and matching funds, and in 2011, all but two winning city councilors used matching funds. If enacted nationally, a similar program could fundamentally shift the balance of power in our elections from mega-donors, back to ordinary citizens.

That’s why we’re working with our national coalition to educate citizens about the solutions that we can act on now to amplify their voices above the voices of megadonors and special interests. By assembling a broad coalition of support, educating and mobilizing citizens and digging deep into the impact of big money in our elections with our reports, we’re bringing democracy back to the people.

Together, we can win real changes now in how elections are funded throughout America — so more candidates for more offices focus on we, the people, instead of we, the megadonors.

 

Issue updates

Media Hit | Democracy

Cheat Sheet: Proposition C Seeks to Limit Corporations' Influence on Campaigns

The 2012 election season was, by far, the most expensive in United States history.

More than $6 billion were spent on candidates running for local, state, and national offices. The presidential race alone had a $2.6 billion bill. The unprecedented spending trumped the second-most expensive campaign season by more than $700 million.

One can argue that anticipated economic factors, such as inflation, made such exceptional expenditure possible.

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Blog Post | Consumer Protection, Democracy

Coming together, pushing back | Jon Fox

 

Observations from the annual National Conference on Media Reform.

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Media Hit | Democracy

Huffman calls for constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United ruling

A constitutional amendment to restore campaign finance laws voided by the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision topped the wish list of panelists at a forum Thursday on election reform hosted by freshman Congressman Jared Huffman.

"Amending the Constitution to overturn Citizens United may well be one of the most important issues of our time," Huffman, D-San Rafael, said at the forum at Dominican University in San Rafael. He encouraged attendees in the meantime, however, to look for additional approaches for making elections fairer and voting more accessible.

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News Release | CALPIRG Education Fund | Budget, Democracy, Tax

California Cities Are Nation’s Best & Worst for Spending Transparency

New report reviews and grades the nation’s thirty largest cities on how effectively they allow the public to track budgets, contracting, subsidies, grants and requests for quality-of-life services.

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Report | CALPIRG Education Fund | Budget, Democracy

Transparency in City Spending

New Report Compares California Cities to Other Major Cities Across America

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Pages

ABC 7: Does a ballot initiative put your identity at risk?

Does signing a ballot initiative put your identity at risk? Ballot initiatives seem to always be circulating and we are often asked to add our signature, so should we be concerned?

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The San Diego Union Tribune: Dirty politics masquerading as consumer protection

“Ugh. I just got back from the supermarket, and those pushy signature gatherers are back!”

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Media Hit | Democracy

The Bakersfield Californian: EDITORIAL: Political gift-taking stains state's legislative process

If politicians are convinced that they are in no way swayed by gifts of tickets, travel and swag bestowed by lobbyists in a never-ending Christmas morning of influence-peddling, good for them. We aren't.

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Media Hit | Democracy

The Los Angeles Times: Trips, tickets and golf for California lawmakers highlight laxity of ethics rules

Trips to Spain and Argentina, choice Lakers tickets, gourmet meals and rounds of golf are among the $637,000 in gifts that elected state officials accepted last year, many from companies and groups that lobby in Sacramento.

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Media Hit | Democracy

The Sacramento Bee: Bill seeks to curb corporate political spending

Democratic lawmakers took aim Monday at corporate political spending after businesses poured millions of dollars into measures on the California primary ballot.

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Report | CALPIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Look Who's Not Coming to Washington 2005

Large contributions made by a small fraction of Americans unduly influence who runs for office and who wins elections in the United States. Without personal wealth or access to networks of wealthy contributors, many qualified and credible candidates are locked out of contention for federal office—often before voters have the opportunity to register their preferences or hear competing points of view.

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Report | CALPIRG | Democracy

Tying the Hands of States

States have long been the laboratories for innovative public policy, particularly in the realm of environmental and consumer protection. State and local legislatures, smaller and often more nimble than the federal government, can develop and test novel policies to address problems identified by local constituents. If a certain policy works, other states can try it. If the policy fails, the state or local government can quickly modify the policy without having affected residents in all 50 states. Success at the state level then often gives rise to federal policy.

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Report | CALPIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Contribution Limits And Competitiveness

For years, academics, political theorists, and campaign finance reformers have debated the causal relationship between campaign contribution limits and the outcome of elections. Some argue that limiting campaign contributions amounts to "incumbent protection;" others contend that limits make challengers more competitive. This study is the first of its kind to comprehensively examine the states with contribution limits and empirically measure changes in competitiveness.

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