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

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.

> Keep Reading
Result | Democracy

Delivering one million petitions to President Obama on dark money

U.S. PIRG joined a broad coalition to deliver one million petitions from Americans, including U.S. PIRG members and supporters, calling on President Obama to shine a light on dark money, or secret political spending.

> Keep Reading
Report | MASSPIRG Education Fund | Democracy

CarMax Endangers Lives in Massachusetts

CarMax, the nation's largest retailer of used cars, is selling recalled vehicles with dangerous and potentially lethal safety defects to Massachusetts car buyers. Those unsafe vehicles are hazardous not only to the people who buy them, but to the cars’ passengers and everyone else who shares the roads and adjacent areas, including sidewalks, driveways and parking lots. 

> Keep Reading
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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Report | U.S. PIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Boosting the Impact of Small Donors

This report examines how the 2016 presidential race would be reshaped by a public financing system that amplifies the voices of small donors in our elections. 

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News Release | MASSPIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Study Shows Big Donors Dominated Competitive 2014 Congressional Races

A new report documenting the dominance of big money in the November 2014 Congressional elections was released today by a host of public interest organizations calling for reform.

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News Release | MASSPIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Big Money Playing an Outsized Role in Massachusetts Elections

In Massachusetts’ congressional primaries, bigger wallets give a small set of mega-donors an outsized voice, according to new information released today by the MASSPIRG Education Fund and Demos.

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News Release | MASSPIRG | Democracy

Statement of Janet Domenitz on today’s United States Senate vote on the constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United

“Today’s vote in the U. S. Senate was a milestone in the fight to reclaim our democracy. The 2010 Citizens United decision unleashed a tide of big money from mega-donors and super PACs into our elections, and it has threatened to drown out the voices of ordinary Americans..."

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News Release | MASSPIRG | 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. MASSPIRG 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.

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Media Hit | Democracy

Support Legislation to Counteract Big Money in Politics

MASSPIRG calls for Citizens United reforms

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Report | Democracy

Vanishing Voters

A new survey of state laws and election officials shows that, on the eve of the 2008 general election, nineteen states do not have laws, regulations or systems in place to properly implement a federally mandated 90-day pre-Election Day ban on systemic voter list purges. The survey, Vanishing Voters, was conducted during the summer of 2008 by the U.S. PIRG Education Fund.

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Mixed Signals

MASSPRG conducts survey of national TV retails stores and finds that consumers are getting Mixed Signals.

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Report | 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.

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Report | Democracy

2005-2006 Legislative Report

This report indicates how senators and representatives stand on some important public interest bills. All three issues will be among MASSPIRG’s top priorities for the 2007-08 session.

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Blog Post | Democracy

In Support of An Act Relative to Accountability for Corporate Political Spending | Janet Domenitz

We sorely need this bill as result of a terrible Supreme Court decision last year. The decision in Citizens United v. FEC afforded already powerful corporate interests even greater influence in our elections. In that decision, five of the nine justices decided to sweep away decades of legal precedent and protections which served to uphold the integrity of our elections process. An Act Relative to Accountability for Corporate Political Spending is a straightforward and important response to this ‘deform’.

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Blog Post | Democracy

In favor of An Act Relative to Disclosure of Political Spending, SB 304 | Janet Domenitz

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” He was referring, of course, not to household cleaning practices but to the health of our democracy. Justice Brandeis believed passionately in open and accountable government.

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Blog Post | Democracy

Testimony: Act Improving the Laws Relating to Ethics and Lobbying | Deirdre Cummings

"Recommendation: I suggest that you include language to require, as part of the reforms, a fully transparenct state budget as laid out in a bill just filed in both the House and Senate entitled, An Act Relative to Transparency in State Revenues and Expenditures."

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