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

Reformers in California assail Supreme Court campaign-finance decision

“We’ve seen what’s happening in Sacramento right now with pay-to-play politics. With this decision, the Supreme Court is codifying pay-to-play politics,” said Austin Price, field director for CALPRIG, the California Public Interest Research Group.

The ruling will have no effect on state-level campaigns in California, as the state’s campaign finance law does not limit the aggregate amount any donor can contribute to candidates for state office. The state law, like the federal law, limits the amount donors can contribute to any one candidate, and the court’s decision allows those individual limits to remain in place.

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Report | CALPIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Billion-Dollar Democracy

The first presidential election since Citizens United lived up to its hype, with unprecedented outside spending from new sources making headlines.

Demos and U.S. PIRG analysis of reports from campaigns, parties, and outside spenders to the Federal Election Commission found that our big money system distorts democracy and creates clear winners and losers:

> Keep Reading
News Release | CALPIRG | Democracy

Google’s Lack of Political Spending Transparency Threatens Brand, Hurts Democracy

Google Inc.’s lack of transparency in its political spending and its membership in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce pose a threat both to Google’s brand as well as to our democracy, according to letters sent this week by shareholders and citizen groups to Google’s board of directors.

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Media Hit | Democracy

Prop C, LA Measure To Overturn Citizens United, Will Be Voted On By Angelenos Next Week

When Angelenos go to the polls next week to choose the next mayor of Los Angeles, they will be the largest electorate to vote on a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling.

Proposition C is a ballot measure urging Congress to pass a constitutional amendment to overturn the 2010 Citizens United ruling, which says that restriction of political spending by corporations or labor unions violates free speech.

> Keep Reading
Media Hit | Democracy

Prop C seeks to reverse Citizens United ruling

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- Next week's election will not only decide the next mayor of Los Angeles, but it will also offer Los Angeles residents a chance to influence national policy.

 

Proposition C is a ballot measure designed to draw attention to the big money spent in elections. If it passes, it won't have a direct effect on campaign fundraising, but it will encourage California lawmakers to bring the topic back into the national spotlight.

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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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News Release | CALPIRG | Democracy

Youth Vote Posts Strong Showing in 2012 Elections, in California and Nationally

“Despite months of hand-wringing about a supposed young voter enthusiasm gap,” said CALPIRG State Director Emily Rusch, “yesterday’s results show that young people are willing to engage in our democracy, particularly if encouraged to do so.”

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News Release | CALPIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Distorted Democracy: Big Money and Dark Money in the 2012 Elections

A new analysis of pre-election data from the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and other sources by CALPIRG and Demos shows that outside spending in the first presidential election since Citizens United is living up to its hype: new waves of “outside spending” have been fueled by dark money and unlimited fundraising from a small number of wealthy donors.

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News Release | CALPIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Starting Today, Californians Can Register to Vote Online

Statement by Daniela Uribe, CALPIRG New Voters’ Project Fellow Regarding Online Voter Registrations for Californians.

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Media Hit | Democracy

Why Republicans Weren't Excited on Super PAC Tuesday

There is a more fundamental problem that explains much of the disconnect between the Republican candidates and the rank-and-file voters: the fact is, voters did not choose these candidates -- donors did.

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Report | CALPIRG Education Fund | Budget, Democracy, Tax

Saving Dollars, Saving Democracy

Following the historic 2008 election, one lesson has been well learned:
The success of any election is utterly dependent on the resources and skills of our local and state-level election officials.

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Report | CALPIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Vanishing Voters

In 1993, Congress passed the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA). Its primary purpose was to open up the voter registration process and enhance democratic participation. The law had several aims, but among them was protecting Americans from being carelessly or purposefully excluded from voting by being improperly dropped from voting rolls.

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Report | CALPIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Funding Clean Elections

The spiraling cost of campaigns, high-profile scandals and voter distrust of Congress have fueled an effort for fundamental reform of the way we fund congressional campaigns. As a result, many federal decision-makers have been working on proposals to create a Clean Elections model for publicly financing congressional campaigns. As a part of the effort to build support both within the Democratic caucus and across party lines, it is important to know how much the program will cost and options to pay for that cost.

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Report | CALPIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Breaking Free With Fair Elections

Fair Elections – systems with full public financing of elections – would help improve the openness, honesty, and accountability of government. They would also free public officials to respond to the interests of voters without worrying about hurting their ability to raise money from deep-pocketed donors.

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Report | CALPIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Honest Enforcement

Some argue that last year’s scandals, which led to the conviction of two congressmen and several top aides, are evidence that ethics enforcement in Congress works. The actual facts leading up to the convictions, however, are more an indictment of the current process than a testament to its success. A whistleblower who took his case to the media and the U.S. Department of Justice—not the House and Senate ethics committees—uncovered the dealings of lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

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