Outside electoral spending gives megadonors an outsized voice

Media Contacts
Emily Scarr

State Director, Maryland PIRG; Director, Stop Toxic PFAS Campaign, PIRG

Latest data shows just 17 Super PAC contributors outweighed all small donors to congressional candidates

Maryland PIRG Foundation

Baltimore, MD Nov. 5 – As the dust begins to clear on this year’s midterms, it is clear that deep-pocketed donors played an outsized role in funding our elections.  According to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, as of reporting on Election Day, spending from Super PACs, c(4)s, and other outside groups reached $553 million, 80% higher than similar spending in the 2010 midterm elections.  And this spending is disproportionately from megadonors – in fact, according to campaign reporting to date, just 17 donors to Super PACs spent as much as the at least 793,000 small donors to Congressional candidates.

“Four years ago, ‘Super PAC’ was a brand-new word,” said Maryland PIRG Director Emily Scarr. “In just that short time, they’ve become the vehicle of choice for those with deep pockets to drown out the voices of tens of thousands of ordinary citizens.”

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s recent decisions undermining federal campaign finance rules, most notably Citizens United v FEC, Maryland’s elections have become increasingly flooded by large donations. Super PACs and dark money groups, which can raise unlimited contributions, including from corporate interests, tilt the balance of power against ordinary citizens.

While the Federal Election Commission has not yet posted complete data for the 2014 cycle, results so far show that outside spending played a significant role – and was dominated by very large donations.

•    Total outside spending (excluding party committees) reached $553 million – about 80% higher than 2010’s total. 
•    As of Election Day, the FEC reported a total of $158.6 million in small contributions of less than $200 to all Congressional candidates, coming from at least 793,000 citizens.  But just the top 17 Super PAC donors gave more than this — $160 million, in total.  These 17 donors’ contributions outweighed the voices of all 793,000 small donors, combined.

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. Montgomery County, Maryland, passed a similar program this fall. And Congressman Sarbanes’s federal Government By the People Act would institute a similar system for Congressional elections.

“Year after year, we’ve seen outside spending records broken,” said Scarr. “But it’s not just about numbers getting bigger – unless we act, ordinary Americans could become irrelevant to our representatives when they run for office.”

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Maryland PIRG Foundation conducts research and public education on behalf of consumers and the public interest. Our research, analysis, reports and outreach serve as counterweights to the influence of powerful special interests that threaten our health, safety or well-being.