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Democracy For The People
U.S. 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.
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.
Citizens’ ability to understand how their tax dollars are spent is fundamental to democracy. Budget and spending transparency holds government officials accountable for making smart decisions, checks corruption, and provides citizens an opportunity to affect how government dollars are spent.
State and local governments spend billions of dollars every year on economic development programs in the form of forgone tax revenue and direct cash grant payments to corporations in an effort to stoke investment and job creation in a particular city, state or industry.
A review of economic development subsidy reporting in all 50 states finds that a majority of states fail to meet minimum standards of online transparency, leaving residents, watchdogs and public officials in the dark about key public expenditures. States should shine light on economic development subsidies by requiring the online publication of key transparency reports and inclusion of economic development spending in the state’s online checkbook portal to meet the expectations of citizens seeking information in the 21st century.
Economic development subsidies – be they tax exemptions, credits, or direct cash grant payments – are a form of public spending, but are rarely held to the same transparency standards as other government expenditures.
Texas received a “C-” for making critical information about how governments are subsidizing business projects with taxpayer dollars readily available to the public online, according to a new report from TexPIRG Education Fund and Frontier Group. Following the Money 2019, the organization’s tenth evaluation of online government spending transparency, gives 17 states a failing grade, while only four states received a grade of “B” or higher.
Texas received an “C-” grade because it lost points for having no laws requiring either a grants report or an online portal database that includes its economic development payments. On the other hand, Texas got full credit for its annually published tax expenditure report.
"As taxpayers, we should be able to see how government spends our money down to the dime," said Bay Scoggin, TexPIRG Education Fund Director. "That includes the billions of dollars that state and local governments give away each year to lure businesses into their backyards."
U.S. PIRG analyzed the campaign finance reports from 2020 candidates. We found that small donations, and the people who provide them, have a significant voice in the presidential race.
Following a report criticizing lack of transparency at the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA), the Texas Sunset Commission examined the agency at a hearing today. The Texas Public Interest Research Group (TexPIRG) called on the Commission and state Legislature to adopt reforms to LCRA to provide greater transparency.
"Citizens' ability to understand how their tax dollars are spent is fundamental to democracy," said Bay Scoggin, Director of TexPIRG. "Budget and spending transparency holds government officials accountable for making smart decisions, checks corruption, and provides citizens an opportunity to affect how government dollars are spent. It's time for a dose of sunlight at LCRA."
The report graded each state’s transparency website from “A” to “F” based on its content and user-friendliness. This year, for the first time, we worked with focus groups to see how well the ordinary Americans could navigate the sites. With that new standard, most states’ grades dropped from our previous report.
“When states are transparent about how they spend tax dollars, we all win: the state saves money, it can operate more efficiently and effectively, and citizens can feel more confident in their government,” said Bay Scoggin, TexPIRG Ed Fund State Director, “That’s why we are so pleased to highlight Comptroller Hegar's leadership on this issue.”
Democracy | U.S. PIRG
For years, it has been impossible to run for office without relying heavily on large dollar donations. While big money still has disproportionate influence, a combination of technological and cultural changes have made it possible for candidates for president to run for office while relying primarily on small-donor money.
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Tell your representative to stand up for our democracy, and amplify the voices of small donors in our elections.
Your donation supports TexPIRG's work to stand up for consumers on the issues that matter, especially when powerful interests are blocking progress.