Democracy For The People

CALPIRG Education Fund is pushing back against big money in our elections and working to educate the public about the benefits 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: 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

Wealthy donors have always had an outsized influence in our democracy, but misguided jurisprudence, like the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, has opened the floodgates for mega donations and corporate spending in our elections.

Spending on political races has skyrocketed, and running for office has never been more expensive. The 2020 election cycle was the most expensive in U.S. history with over $14 billion spent. As a result, unless candidates are independently wealthy, they often need to court contributions from mega-donors or corporate interests to be competitive in their races.

Our currect campaign finance system gives a very small number of people massive influence on who runs for office and, often, what issues they decide to talk about. In 2016, fewer than 400 families gave more than half of all of the money raised in the presidential race. That’s not how our democracy is supposed to work. Our democracy is supposed to be based on the principle of one person, one vote.

Ultimately, we need to overturn Citizens United and make other systemic changes if we want to get big money out of our elections. But large-scale changes like these take time, public pressure, and elected leaders who are committed to making it happen. That’s why we’re researching and supporting small donor empowerment programs, that will bring power back to the people.

It's time to reclaim our democracy and bring it back to the principle of one person, one vote. 

RECLAIMING OUR DEMOCRACY

Small donor publc financing programs match contributions of ordinary people with public funds. Candidates access these funds when they opt into the program and refuse to take large and corporate contributions. This means anyone with enough public support can run for office, those candidates can raise enough money to be competitive, and they will be answerable to their constituents, not a handful of mega-donors and corporations.

Communites across Maryland have established small donor public financing to give everyone a voice in our elections and keep big money out.  Montgomery County's program was in effect for the first time for the 2018 elections. To participate, candidates must reject contributions over $150 and money from corporations. Maryland PIRG Foundation analysis found:

  • Candidates who had qualified received nearly twice as many donations from Montgomery County residents than those not participating.
  • Those not participating received only 8 percent of their donations from people giving less than $150, while those participating received more than 90 percent of their donations from people giving less than $150.
  • By the June primary, more than half of all candidates, over 30 total, participated in the program. Ultimately, 22 qualified for the program — candidates from both parties and from a wide range of backgrounds who were able to run competitive campaigns based on support from the communities, not large donors.  

Together, we can win real changes now in how elections are funded throughout America — so more candidates for more offices focus on we, the people, instead of we, the megadonors.

Issue updates

Report | CALPIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Billion-Dollar Democracy

The first presidential election since Citizens United lived up to its hype, with unprecedented outside spending from new sources making headlines.

Demos and U.S. PIRG analysis of reports from campaigns, parties, and outside spenders to the Federal Election Commission found that our big money system distorts democracy and creates clear winners and losers:

> Keep Reading
News Release | CALPIRG | Democracy

Google’s Lack of Political Spending Transparency Threatens Brand, Hurts Democracy

Google Inc.’s lack of transparency in its political spending and its membership in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce pose a threat both to Google’s brand as well as to our democracy, according to letters sent this week by shareholders and citizen groups to Google’s board of directors.

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Media Hit | Democracy

Prop C, LA Measure To Overturn Citizens United, Will Be Voted On By Angelenos Next Week

When Angelenos go to the polls next week to choose the next mayor of Los Angeles, they will be the largest electorate to vote on a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling.

Proposition C is a ballot measure urging Congress to pass a constitutional amendment to overturn the 2010 Citizens United ruling, which says that restriction of political spending by corporations or labor unions violates free speech.

> Keep Reading
Media Hit | Democracy

Prop C seeks to reverse Citizens United ruling

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- Next week's election will not only decide the next mayor of Los Angeles, but it will also offer Los Angeles residents a chance to influence national policy.

 

Proposition C is a ballot measure designed to draw attention to the big money spent in elections. If it passes, it won't have a direct effect on campaign fundraising, but it will encourage California lawmakers to bring the topic back into the national spotlight.

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Media Hit | Democracy

Cheat Sheet: Proposition C Seeks to Limit Corporations' Influence on Campaigns

The 2012 election season was, by far, the most expensive in United States history.

More than $6 billion were spent on candidates running for local, state, and national offices. The presidential race alone had a $2.6 billion bill. The unprecedented spending trumped the second-most expensive campaign season by more than $700 million.

One can argue that anticipated economic factors, such as inflation, made such exceptional expenditure possible.

> Keep Reading

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Media Hit | Democracy

Why Republicans Weren't Excited on Super PAC Tuesday

There is a more fundamental problem that explains much of the disconnect between the Republican candidates and the rank-and-file voters: the fact is, voters did not choose these candidates -- donors did.

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ABC 7: Does a ballot initiative put your identity at risk?

Does signing a ballot initiative put your identity at risk? Ballot initiatives seem to always be circulating and we are often asked to add our signature, so should we be concerned?

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The San Diego Union Tribune: Dirty politics masquerading as consumer protection

“Ugh. I just got back from the supermarket, and those pushy signature gatherers are back!”

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Media Hit | Democracy

The Bakersfield Californian: EDITORIAL: Political gift-taking stains state's legislative process

If politicians are convinced that they are in no way swayed by gifts of tickets, travel and swag bestowed by lobbyists in a never-ending Christmas morning of influence-peddling, good for them. We aren't.

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Media Hit | Democracy

The Los Angeles Times: Trips, tickets and golf for California lawmakers highlight laxity of ethics rules

Trips to Spain and Argentina, choice Lakers tickets, gourmet meals and rounds of golf are among the $637,000 in gifts that elected state officials accepted last year, many from companies and groups that lobby in Sacramento.

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Report | CALPIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Honest Enforcement

Some argue that last year’s scandals, which led to the conviction of two congressmen and several top aides, are evidence that ethics enforcement in Congress works. The actual facts leading up to the convictions, however, are more an indictment of the current process than a testament to its success. A whistleblower who took his case to the media and the U.S. Department of Justice—not the House and Senate ethics committees—uncovered the dealings of lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

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Report | CALPIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Look Who's Not Coming to Washington 2005

Large contributions made by a small fraction of Americans unduly influence who runs for office and who wins elections in the United States. Without personal wealth or access to networks of wealthy contributors, many qualified and credible candidates are locked out of contention for federal office—often before voters have the opportunity to register their preferences or hear competing points of view.

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Report | CALPIRG | Democracy

Tying the Hands of States

States have long been the laboratories for innovative public policy, particularly in the realm of environmental and consumer protection. State and local legislatures, smaller and often more nimble than the federal government, can develop and test novel policies to address problems identified by local constituents. If a certain policy works, other states can try it. If the policy fails, the state or local government can quickly modify the policy without having affected residents in all 50 states. Success at the state level then often gives rise to federal policy.

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Report | CALPIRG Education Fund | Democracy

Contribution Limits And Competitiveness

For years, academics, political theorists, and campaign finance reformers have debated the causal relationship between campaign contribution limits and the outcome of elections. Some argue that limiting campaign contributions amounts to "incumbent protection;" others contend that limits make challengers more competitive. This study is the first of its kind to comprehensively examine the states with contribution limits and empirically measure changes in competitiveness.

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News Release | CALPIRG

Governor Newsom’s Executive Order today expanding mail-in ballots to every registered voter is a no brainer for safe, secure elections in November. 

Report | CALPIRG Education Fund

Year after year, state and local governments propose billions of dollars’ worth of new and expanded highways that often do little to reduce congestion or address real transportation challenges, while diverting scarce funding from infrastructure repairs and key transportation priorities. Our 5th annual Highway Boondoggles report features the proposed High Desert Freeway east of Los Angeles. This $8 billion project would lead to more driving and more pollution, along with sprawling desert development.

Blog Post

CALPIRG Education Fund’s New Voters Project ensured that thousands of newly eligible young voters registered to vote, received non-partisan information about what was on their ballot, and cast a ballot by Election Day. In total, our team helped register more than 6,000 students to vote and made more than 500,000 Get out the Vote contacts. Here are our highlights, lowlights, and recommendations for future elections.

Blog Post

Today is the last day to register to vote before the June primary! Recent policy changes backed by CALPIRG have helped modernize our elections and remove unecessary barriers to voting. Now voter registration rates are they highest they've been in 64 years!

Report | CALPIRG Education Fund

Starting in the fall of 2016, 16- and 17-year-olds in California will be allowed to “preregister” to vote, ensuring that they are listed on the voter rolls the moment they turn 18. Voter preregistration provides California with an opportunity to improve young voter participation, but state and local officials must take proactive steps in order to make preregistration a success.

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