Big Money Playing an Outsized Role in Illinois Elections

Media Contacts
Abe Scarr

State Director, Illinois PIRG; Energy and Utilities Program Director, PIRG

New information shows dominance of large donors in congressional primaries and Governor’s race

Illinois PIRG Education Fund

In this year’s campaigns, bigger wallets give a small set of mega-donors an outsized voice, according to new information released today by Illinois PIRG Education Fund and Demos. In the congressional primaries, just 426 donors who gave $1,000 or more to candidates outspent the at least 13,315 small donors who gave less than $200, and 64% percent of all contributions came from donors giving chunks of $1,000 or more. In the last quarter of Illinois Governor’s race, where campaign contribution limits have been lifted, the numbers are even more stark: one individual donor has outspent the at least 3,208 small donors who gave less than $200, and 85% of all contributions came from donors giving $1,000 or more.

“Some argue about which party benefits the most from the new wild west of campaign finance, or claim that so long as both major candidates in an election are well-financed, our democracy is working the way it should,” said Abe Scarr, Illinois PIRG Education Fund Director. “But that misses the forest for the trees: small donors’ voices are increasingly drowned out by the spending of a small cadre of large donors, and ordinary citizens are the ones who lose out.”

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s recent decisions undermining campaign finance rules, most notably Citizens United v FEC, Illinois elections have become increasingly flooded by large donations. And big money, often from out-of-district donors, can have an increased effect in primaries because often, spending in the primaries is lower than in the general election. The effect of this “money primary” is that it systematically disadvantages grassroots-fueled candidates who appeal to ordinary voters, but not to big donors.

The Illinois PIRG Education Fund and Demos analysis examined contributions in congressional primaries in all states except Louisiana (which holds its primary on Election Day), and compared fund-raising from large donors (contributions of $1,000 or more in at least one race) and small donors (who gave $200 or less). Among its findings:

  • Just 426 large donors in Illinois contributed as much as the at least 13,315 small donors combined in its congressional primaries, ranking it 13th in the nation. The state with the greatest inequity between small and large donors was Texas, with a single large donor (a self-financed candidate) exceeding all small contributions from a minimum of 8,767 small donors. 
  • Nationwide, fewer than 5,500 large donors outspent at least 440,000 small donors.  If that were a single race, it would mean that a candidate who got 10,000 people to give a donation would lose out in the money race to someone who only got 125 contributions.
  • In terms of the percentage of primary funds coming from large donors, Illinois came in 29th, at 64%; the top slot was taken by Texas, with 80% of primary contributions coming from large donors.

“If our primaries just help select the candidate with the most appeal to big donors, our democracy suffers,” said Scarr. “Mega-donors shouldn’t get louder voices because they have deeper pockets.”

Illinois PIRG Education Fund further examined the latest quarterly reports from the Illinois Governor’s race, analyzing all individual contributions but excluding all corporate, party and PAC contributions as well as contributions candidate Bruce Rauner made to his own campaign.  Among its findings:

  • A single donor gave more than twice as much as the at least 3,208 small donors combined.
  • Small donors account for more than 50% of all contributors, but less than 7% of all money contributed.
  • 85% of all money contributed came from donors giving $1,000 or more.

There are successful, proven models to empower small donors, so that their voices play a more central role in our democracy, such as providing tax credits and public matching funds for small donations. For example, in New York City’s 2013 city council campaigns, small donors were responsible for 61% of participating candidates’ contributions, when funds from a matching program are included. In 2009, all but two of the 51 winning candidates participated in the small donor program, showing that candidates are able to raise the money they need to win without looking for large-dollar contributions.

Oak Park Village President Anan Abu-Taleb is one of many local elected officals supporting small donor financing programs. “Cities benefit from having lots of candidates with diverse life experiences who are willing to run for office to help solve complex problems,” said President Abu-Taleb.  “Even smaller towns like mine have many residents who would qualify, but may not think it is financially possible to run.”

“Even candidates and some donors themselves are tired of the fundraising grind,” said Rey Lopez-Calderon, Executive Director of Common Cause Illinois. “Public financing systems encourage participating candidates to connect with average voters.  And with a robust matching system, candidates can tell regular voters–with confidence–that their small contribution will make a difference.”

“While small donor matching systems are not a panacea for the multiple problems created by our current campaign finance system,” said David Melton, Executive Director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, “they offer a path toward a significant improvement in that system by giving politicians the opportunity to rely on average voters to fund their campaigns rather than relying on the ultra-rich or special interest money.”

Read more about the analysis here.