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.
The rise of mega donor election spending is impacting state elections as well. Maryland PIRG Foundation's analysis of spending in the state's gubernatorial elections finds that over the last three elections:
- The vast majority (84%) of the money raised came from contributions over $250, despite the fact that those contributions represented less than a fifth (19%) of total donations to candidates.
- Maryland voters generally don’t contribute to elections. On average, there are about 50 thousand (50,056) contributions to gubernatorial campaigns by Maryland residents every election cycle, which is barely 1% of Maryland’s nearly-five million (4,702,570) voting age population.
- Over half of the money raised does not come from Maryland voters. 52% of the money contributed to gubernatorial races comes from either out-of-state donors or non-individuals, such as corporations or PACs.
This 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, our national leaders need to overturn Citizens United and make other systemic changes 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 working to bring the power back to the people by doing research and education on small donor empowerment programs at the state and local levels.
These 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.