Democracy For the People

Everyone is supposed to have a voice in our democracy, but in reality not everyone is being heard.

Jonathan Comer | TPIN

U.S. PIRG, with support from Impact, Change Corps, and the Student PIRGs, is working to amplify the voices of all Americans, so they can be heard over the din of big-spending corporations, Super PACs and the super-wealthy.

Since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010, so-called “mega donors” have gained even more influence in the “money election” — the race among many candidates to raise the most money from the fewest people in the shortest period of time.

Take the recent midterm elections for example: Our report, “The Money Chase,” on the dominance of big money in the 2014 congressional elections looked at 25 most competitive House races, and in those races the top two vote-getters got more than 86% of their contributions from large donors. Meanwhile, only two of those candidates raised less than 70% of their individual contributions from large donors.

We’re 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. It would encourage more people to participate by giving small donors a $25 credit on their taxes. It would also increase 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.

It’s possible to enact programs like this; 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% 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% of their contributions from small donors.

To build momentum for national action, we’ve sought to raise awareness of and support for similar reforms at every level, from city halls to state capitols.

In 2014, we worked with coalition partners Common Cause and Progressive Maryland to convince Maryland’s Montgomery County to adopt small donor reform. In 2015, we provided timely grassroots support for successful ballot initiatives in Seattle and Maine. In 2016, we’re engaged in similar efforts in Washington, D.C., Chicago, Maryland’s Howard County, Denver, Portland and Washington state, among other locations.

Ultimately, we want to see Citizens United overturned, and we’ve helped win support for such a move from 17 states and 701 municipalities. Meanwhile, we can win real changes now in how elections are funded throughout America so more candidates for more offices represent we, the people — not just the mega-donors and Super PACs who are twisting our democracy for their own purposes and undermining the principles upon which our nation stands.

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