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

Report | MASSPIRG, DEMOS | Democracy

"MCCUTCHEON" COULD ADD OVER $1 BILLION IN CONTRIBUTIONS TO NEXT FOUR ELECTIONS

We project that striking the aggregate contribution limit would bring more than $1 billion in additional campaign contributions from elite donors through the 2020 election cycle.

> Keep Reading
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.

> Keep Reading
Media Hit | Democracy

Support Legislation to Counteract Big Money in Politics

MASSPIRG calls for Citizens United reforms

> Keep Reading
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.

> Keep Reading
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.

> Keep Reading

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