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

Blog Post | Democracy

Statement of Deirdre Cummings, MASSPIRG Legislative Director, on the occasion of the anniversary of the Supreme Court v. McCutcheon decision | Deirdre Cummings

MASSPIRG calls on President Obama to issue an executive order requiring disclosure of election contributions made by federal contractors.

> Keep Reading
News Release | MASSPIRG | Democracy

Massachusetts Lawmakers and Activists Announce Introduction of Democracy Bill

Massachusetts legislators took a big step toward creating a genuine democracy in the United States by introducing the We the People Act (HD 1988). The bill, introduced by state Sen. Jamie Eldridge (D-Acton) and state Rep. Cory Atkins (D-Concord) has 62 cosponsors in the House and 19 in the Senate.

> Keep Reading
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.

> Keep Reading
Report | MASSPIRG Education Fund | Democracy

The Money Chase

Five years after the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. FEC decision, what are the roles of large donors and average voters in selecting and supporting candidates for Congress? This report examines the role of money in the 2014 con-gressional elections from both quantitative and qualitative perspec- tives, and demonstrates how matching small political contributions with limited public funds can change the campaign landscape for grassroots candidates.

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Democracy

Press Conference for New Report Documents Big Donor Dominance in 2014 Congressional Elections | Ben Martin-McDonough

As the fifth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision approaches, MASSPIRG and Demos have co-authored a report, “The Money Chase: Moving from Big Donor Dominance to a Small Donor Democracy.”

> Keep Reading

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News Release | MASSPIRG | Democracy

First-of-its-kind “Refrain From Political Spending” Resolution to Be Voted on at Bank of America Shareholder Meeting Wednesday

On Wednesday, May 9, shareholders at Bank of America will vote “yea” or “nay” on a first-of-its-kind “refrain from political spending” resolution.

“With this resolution, we are bidding to take back democracy from corporate special interests. Bank of America is the archetype of the reckless corporation, and we do not want them or any other corporate interest having unlimited power in our democracy,” said Janet Domenitz.

> Keep Reading
News Release | MASSPIRG Education Fund | Democracy, Tax

Thirty Companies Contribute $41 Million to 524 Members of Congress, Receive $10.6 Billion in Tax Rebates

A new report released Wednesday, March 21st by MASSPIRG Education Fund and Citizens for Tax Justice (CTJ) found that thirty tax dodging corporations have made campaign contributions to 524 (98%) sitting members of Congress, and disproportionately to the leadership of both parties and to key committee members

> Keep Reading
News Release | MASSPIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Report Begins to Uncover the Impact of Super PACs on Our Democracy

A new analysis released today of the funding sources for the campaign finance behemoths, Super PACs, confirms what many have predicted in the wake of the Supreme Court’s damaging Citizens United decision: since their inception in 2010, Super PACs have been primarily funded by a small segment of very wealthy individuals and business interests, with a small but significant amount of funds coming from secret sources.

> Keep Reading
News Release | MASSPIRG | Democracy, Financial Reform

MASSPIRG Executive Director urging Senator Brown to support the DISCLOSE Act

MASSPIRG is strongly urging Senator Brown to stand up and support the DISCLOSE Act, which will require corporations to disclose their campaign contributions.

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News Release | MASSPIRG | Democracy, Financial Reform

The DISCLOSE Act is a Critical First Step to Prevent a Corporate Takeover of Democracy

The DISCLOSE (Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending in Elections) Act includes a set of strong and necessary reforms which will help protect American elections from the flood of corporate money made legal in the January 21 Supreme Court ruling.

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