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 Education Fund | Democracy

Million-Dollar Megaphones

Outside spending by organizations that aggregate unlimited contributions from wealthy individuals and institutions is playing a significant role in the 2012 election cycle, and much of it is not disclosed.

> Keep Reading
News Release | MASSPIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Outside Spending, Secret Money and Super PAC Fundraising On the Rise

The top 5 “dark money” spenders on presidential election ads have reported less than 1% of their spending to the Federal Election Commission (FEC). Unfortunately, this is all that is required by the FEC’s insufficient and inadequate standards, meaning that these spenders are not running afoul of the law.

> Keep Reading
News Release | MASSPIRG | Democracy

MASSPIRG Statement on summary reversal in American Tradition Partnership vs. Bullock

Today the  Supreme Court passed on the opportunity to revisit its disastrous 2010 Citizens United decision which is wreaking havoc on democracy and it has done so in a way that avoids giving the American public a much deserved explanation.

> Keep Reading
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.

> Keep Reading
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

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