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Democracy For The People
NJPIRG Law & Policy Center 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.
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.
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.
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.
In New Jersey’s congressional primaries, bigger wallets give a small set of mega-donors an outsized voice, according to new information released today by NJPIRG Law and Policy Center and Demos. Just 383 donors who gave $1,000 or more to candidates in the primaries outspent the at least 6,871 small donors who gave less than $200, and 66 percent of all candidate contributions came from donors giving chunks of $1,000 or more.
This term, the Supreme Court is considering a challenge to aggregate contribution limits in a case called McCutcheon v. FEC. The current limit on what one person may contribute to all federal candidates, parties and PACs is $123,200. Absent this limit, one wealthy donor would be permitted to contribute more than $3.5 million to a single party’s candidates and party committees (plus a virtually unlimited amount to supportive PACs).
The 2012 elections were by far the most expensive in history thanks primarily to the tidal wave of outside, special interest money triggered by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. The federal Senate and House races in New Jersey, where outside groups spent over $3 million, were no exception.
Tools & Resources
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