Democracy For The People

MASSPIRG 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 to 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 MASSPIRG and our fellow state PIRGs have 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 and city-by-city to build the support its going to take to win. We’ve already helped get 16 states and nearly 700 cities, counties and towns to formally tell Congress that the Constitution must be amended.

In 2012, the Massachusetts Legislature passed S772, a resolution that called for Congress to pass a constitutional Amendment to “restore the First Amendment and fair elections to the people.” Additionally, 207 out of 351 municipalities have passed similar resolutions, usually by large majorities.

However, for average citizens to take back their democracy from corporate influence, more than a call to action is needed. This is why MASSPIRG supports the We the People Bill, a joint resolution currently pending in the Massachusetts legislature that was introduced by Sen. James Eldridge and Rep. Cory Atkins. If passed, the We the People Bill would call on Congress to propose a Constitutional amendment to fix our broken democracy. If Congress fails to act within six months, the bill would officially put Massachusetts on the record calling for a convention of the states to bypass Congress and propose such an amendment itself.

Getting a constitutional amendment across the finish line won’t be easy, but it’s what’s necessary to reclaim our democracy. 

Amplifying The Voices Of Small Donors

While overturning Citizens United is the long term goal, we're working in the meantime to amplify the voices of ordinary people in our elections. 

On the national level, the PIRGs are 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:

  • The Government By the People Act encourages more people to participate by giving small donors a $50 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.

The bill currently has 160 cosponors in the House of Representatives and 19 cosponors for the Senate equivalent, the Fair Elections Now Act.  In Massachusetts, MASSPIRG helped to secure the support of eight of our nine representatives for the House bill: Congress people, Jim McGovern, Niki Tsongas, Seth Moulton, Katherine Clark, Joseph Kennedy III, Michael Capuano, William Keating, and Stephen Lynch. Additionally, both Senators Markey and Warren are supporters of the Senate bill.

Such programs are feasible; 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 the PIRGs are working with cities and towns across the country to establish small donor incentive programs of their own to add to the list of successful programs the have already been established.

We can win real changes now in how elections are funded throughout Massachusetts and America. With your help, we can win real changes now in how elections are funded throughout Massachusetts and 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

Result | Democracy

Winning voter reforms in Massachusetts

MASSPIRG helped win two important reforms to engage new voters and give all citizens an equal opportunity to vote. We fought for and won online voter registration, which allows residents with state IDs or driver’s licenses to register to vote online. We also won early voting, which allows residents to vote 11 business days before Election Day.   

> Keep Reading
News Release | MASSPIRG | Democracy

LEGISLATURE PASSES CRITICAL PUBLIC RECORDS REFORM BILL

The Massachusetts House and senate voted unanimously in support of H.4333, a much needed overhaul of the Commonwealth's public records law, which has not been updated since 1973. The bill strengthens state and local government transparency and accountability, and promotes citizen participation.

> Keep Reading
News Release | MASSPIRG | Democracy

House Passes Critical Public Records Reform Bill

The Massachusetts House voted unanimously in support of H.4333, a much needed overhaul of the Commonwealth's public records law, which has not been updated since 1973. The bill strengthens state and local government transparency and accountability, and promotes citizen participation.

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Democracy

U.S. PIRG's Top 5 Change-Makers

This week, Time Magazine came out with its annual Top 100 Most Influential People list, but what about the men and women who made a difference for regular Americans on the issues facing all of us?

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Media Hit | Democracy

Remove voter barrier, establish automatic registration

The Feb. 10th deadline to register to vote in the Massachusetts state primary has passed, leaving many eligible voters, once again, out of the democratic process.

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Media Hit | Democracy

Opportunities for real reform of Citizens United

January isn't dark just because of the weather. This month, the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision turns six, marking another year of mega-donor politics and secret political spending. It's the same court decision that determined money is speech and corporations are people, both concepts fundamentally at odds with a democratic system of government and basic common sense.

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News Release | MASSPIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Election Modernization Coalition Launches Early Voting Training Program

Anticipating that the 2016 presidential election will draw many voters to the polls, the Election Modernization Coalition last night launched the first in a series of trainings to prime activists working to expand a new reform in the Commonwealth: early voting. Over 50 people from around the state gathered in Boston to attend this training and get the tools they need to make early voting work in their own cities and towns, which have significant latitude under the new law.

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News Release | MASSPIRG Education Fund | Democracy

New Study: Small Donor Matching Program Would Incentivize Shift in 2016 Presidential Fundraising Strategies

Candidates in the 2016 presidential race would see a dramatic shift in fundraising success under a proposed small donor public financing system, according to a study released on Wednesday by U.S. PIRG Education Fund. Using third quarter fundraising data filed with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) in October, the report examines the potential impact of a program that matches small contributions with limited public funds for candidates who agree not to accept large donations.

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News Release | MASSPIRG | Democracy

Election Modernization Coalition Launches Inaugural Early Voting Challenge

In an effort to set a gold standard, advocates from the Massachusetts Election Modernization Coalition today announced their recommendations for implementing the state’s new early voting law. Scheduled to go into effect in November 2016, the new law provides Massachusetts voters with the opportunity to vote up to eleven days prior to Election Day.

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News Release | MASSPIRG | Democracy

Election Modernization Coalition Lauds Implementation of Online Voter Registration

Today, Secretary of State William Galvin announced the official launch of online voter registration, implementing a long-awaited reform that will allow Massachusetts citizens with signatures on file with the Registry of Motor Vehicles to fill out paperless voter registration applications over the Internet. 

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Report | MASSPIRG Education Fund | Democracy, Tax

Loopholes for Sale

Recent polls show a large majority of Americans, including small business owners, are convinced that profitable corporations are not paying enough in taxes. Citizens for Tax Justice and U.S. PIRG’s Loopholes for Sale pursues the intersection of corporate campaign contributions to members of Congress and the absence of Congressional action to close corporate tax loopholes and raise additional revenue from corporate taxes. The report includes the following findings:

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Report | MASSPIRG Education Fund and Dēmos | Democracy

Auctioning Democracy

This appendix provides a detailed look at business funding for Super PACs: top business donors, Super PACs which received the most business money, and amount and number of contributions by state.

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Report | MASSPIRG Education Fund and Dēmos | Democracy

Auctioning Democracy

The presidential race had barely gotten off the ground when it became clear that 2012 would be the year of the Super PAC. The millions of dollars raised and spent by these strange and powerful court-created entities have created a kind of parallel campaign, this reports begins to investigates its effects on our democracy.

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Report | Media and Democracy Coaltion | Democracy

A Public Interest Internet Agenda

Connecting our entire nation via high-speed broadband will bring remarkable economic, social, cultural, personal, and other benefits.

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Pages

Blog Post | Democracy

Election Modernization Bill Passes in Massachusetts | Janet Domenitz

Online Voter Registration Brings Massachusetts into the 21st Century

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Blog Post | Democracy

Senate passes Election Modernization Bill | Janet Domenitz

The senate voted 37 - 1 to pass a bill modernizing our elections, adding in election day registration and other needed reforms.

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Blog Post | Democracy

Modernize our Elections | Andrew Fish

The state senate will vote tomorrow to modernize our elections with online registration, early voting, and more.

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Blog Post | Democracy

MASSPIRG: Bring Elections into 21st Century | Janet Domenitz

MASSPIRG supoprts crucial reforms to bring our democracy into the 21st century: online voter registration, pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds, and early voting.

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Blog Post | Democracy

Why Target is still a target | Janet Domenitz

We believe in a campaign financing system that represents the American democratic values of one person, one vote. We believe that, in a democracy, the size of your wallet should not determine the power of your voice. But when corporations are allowed to spend unlimited cash to influence the outcome of an election, the voices of ordinary citizens are drowned out. It’s like we’re standing on a soap box and they’ve got the entire Carnegie Hall speaker system.

But we can fight back – we can hold accountable corporations that choose to muck around in our democracy. That’s why we’re supporting the shareholder resolution filed by Green Century Funds at Target Corporation, a resolution that demands the corporation put an end once and for all to its risky and irresponsible use of shareholder money to influence elections.

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