Democracy For The People

OSPIRG 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 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 U.S. PIRG has 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, city-by-city to build the support its going to take to win. We’ve already helped get 16 states and nearly 600 cities, counties and towns to formally tell Congress that the Constitution must be amended. Getting this across the finish line won’t be easy, but it’s what’s necessary to reclaim our democracy.

In the meantime, we're working to amplify the voices of ordinary people in our elections. So we're also working to create systems of incentives and matching funds for small contributions — systems that are already in place in some cities and counties.  

Amplifying The Voices Of Small 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. Here’s how:

  • Government By the People Act encourages more people to participate by giving small donors a $25 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.

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 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 we’re working with cities and towns across the country to establish small donor incentive programs of their own.

With your help, we can win real changes now in how elections are funded throughout 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 | OSPIRG Foundation & Frontier Group | Democracy

Big Money in Oregon State Elections

The influence of big money on politics drowns out the voices of regular Oregonians and makes it difficult or impossible for qualified candidates to run for office without access to deep-pocketed donors. We need our government to be open to everyone, regardless the size of their wallet or connections to big donors.

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News Release | OSPIRG Foundation | Democracy

Report: Oregon Large Political Donors Outmatched Small Donors 14 to One in 2016

Days before the Oregon Legislature convenes for a month-long session and considers a proposal to make changes to how elections are financed, OSPIRG Foundation released a report examining the sizable disparity between large donors and small donors in Oregon’s elections. The report finds that in the 2016 election season, just over 700 large donors contributed nearly fourteen times more than all small donors combined – a group comprised of an estimated 31,000 donors.

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News Release | Democracy

Our Statement Regarding the President’s “Commission on Election Integrity”

Read OSPIRG's statement on the President's establishment of an "Advisory Commission on Election Integrity."

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Blog Post | Democracy

Call your representative and senators every day. Here's how. | Andre Delattre

There’s a lot unfolding in Washington, D.C., right now, and you may be wondering: “What can I do to voice my concerns?”

> Keep Reading
News Release | OSPIRG | Democracy

Portland City Council Votes to Make Government More Accountable to Everyday People

The Portland City Council passed a major reform that will lift up the voices of everyday voters in local government. Open and Accountable Elections will empower candidates to run for office without taking big campaign contributions, instead fueling their campaigns with small donations from local, everyday voters, matched 6-to-1 with designated public funds.

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News Release | OSPIRG Foundation | 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 OSPIRG Foundation.

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News Release | OSPIRG | Democracy

OSPIRG Applauds Step Towards Modernizing Oregon’s Voter Registration System

OSPIRG applaud's the Oregon State Senate's passage of House Bill 2177 today.

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News Release | Democracy

OSPIRG Applauds Reps. Blumenauer, DeFazio and Bonamici for the Government by the People Act

OSPIRG proudly endorses the Government By the People Act, legislation introduced today in the U.S. House of Representatives that would put ordinary Americans back in charge of our elections.

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Report | OSPIRG | Democracy

FIGHTING BIG MONEY, EMPOWERING PEOPLE

Steps the next President of the United States can take to get big money out of politics and restore the health of our democracy.

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Report | OSPIRG | 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 congressional elections from both quantitative and qualitative perspectives, and demonstrates how matching small political contributions with limited public funds can change the campaign landscape for grassroots candidates.

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Report | OSPIRG Foundation and Demos | Democracy

The Dominance of Big Money in the 2014 Congressional Elections

In 2014, large donors accounted for the vast majority of all individual federal election contributions this cycle, just as they have in previous elections. Seven of every 10 individual contribution dollars to the federal candidates, parties, PACs and Super PACs that were active in the 2013-2014 election cycle came from donors who gave $200 or more. Candidates alone got 84 percent of their individual contributions from large donors.

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Report | OSPIRG Foundation | Democracy

Big Money Dominates in Congressional Primaries

Our analysis of fund-raising data from 2014’s congressional primaries examines the way these dynamics are playing out state by state across the country. While some states show markedly more inequity than others, the picture painted by the data is of a primary money race where large donors carry more weight than ordinary Americans. Nationwide, just under two-thirds of all candidate contributions came from the largest donors (those giving over $1,000). And fewer than 5,500 large donors matched the primary contributions coming from at least 440,000 donors nationwide.

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Report | OSPIRG | Democracy, Health Care

2013 Legislative Vote Chart

Want to know how your Oregon state legislators voted on key bills related to democracy, health care and government transparency during the 2013 legislative session? Download OSPIRG's vote chart.

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Blog Post | Democracy

IRS Scandal Highlights Need for Increased Transparency in Campaign Financing

It’s up to the IRS to ensure that nonprofits are not being used as illicit vehicles to funnel untraceable money into our elections. However the agency’s handling of this responsibility has been thoroughly outrageous, the latest scandal being just the latest example of disturbing action—or, as has been more often the case, inaction. 

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Blog Post | Democracy

Voters Rejected Big Money, Called for Reform

Voters in Oregon and across the country stood up against big money in November's elections and called for reform.

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Blog Post | Budget, Democracy, Tax

Starting to see a bit more clearly | David Rosenfeld

The state transparency website is being updated this week. There are improvements that can be made, including the posting tax subsidy information. Let us know your suggested improvements.

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News Release | U.S. PIRG

The House of Representatives passed a package of democracy reform legislation (H.R. 1) on Wednesday night that features important proposals to improve the health of America’s democracy. The bill would increase participation in the voting process and disclosures on secret political spending as well as reform redistricting practices. It would also create a small donor empowerment system for federal elections, which would help combat the overwhelming influence of big money in politics.

News Release | OSPIRG

 

The Oregon Supreme Court has affirmed the constitutionality of campaign contribution limits in Oregon. The ruling that the court issued Thursday in Multnomah County v Mehrwein overturned previous precedent from the 1997 decision Vanetta v Keisling. 

Report | U.S. PIRG

U.S. PIRG analyzed the campaign finance reports from 2020 candidates. We found that small donations, and the people who provide them, have a significant voice in the presidential race.

Blog Post

How did your state representatives vote on issues that affect your health, safety and well-being?

Blog Post

On March 3rd, the state legislature adjourned a four-week “short session.” See how our main priorities fared in the legislature.

Democracy

A somber anniversary: 10 years after the Citizens United decision

January 15th marked the 10th anniversary of the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling, widely blamed for opening the floodgates to special interest spending in our elections. U.S. legislators joined PIRG and other pro-democracy organizations to decry the ongoing harm caused by the ruling—and to highlight the growth of the pro-reform movement. 

 

Democracy | U.S. PIRG

Small donors are driving the 2020 presidential race

For years, it has been impossible to run for office without relying heavily on large dollar donations. While big money still has disproportionate influence, a combination of technological and cultural changes have made it possible for candidates for president to run for office while relying primarily on small-donor money.

 

Democracy | OSPIRG

OSPIRG 2019 Legislative Scorecard

We've compiled our scorecard as a tool for the public to know how your lawmakers voted on key public interest issues. This year, we scored 12 bills and our citizen outreach team is delivering them to doors throughout the state.

 
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