Political Reality

Project Vote Smart is now offering access to a world of political information through the World Wide Web.

by / October 31, 1995
Nov 95

By Justine Kavanaugh Staff Writer

It started in 1988 with an ambitious goal - to provide voters with the undoctored facts. Since then, Project Vote Smart - a resource program founded by past and present federal officials including Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, Barry Goldwater and George McGovern - has rapidly expanded. In 1992 they fielded calls from over 200,000 voters nationwide seeking, among other information, political candidates' voting records, information on financial contributions, ratings from national organizations, biographies. "We try to offer citizens an alternative and access to the kind of information they're not getting from candidates generally," said Adelaide Elm, director of public information for Project Vote Smart. "We encourage people to look at the whole campaign process as a job application. When they campaign, they're applying for jobs. And we deserve to know something about them before we hire them." Project Vote Smart, headquartered in the town of Corvallis, Ore., is a national, non-partisan, non-profit group funded by donations and grants. According to Elm, the project was borne of frustration with the political process and a lack of non-partisan information. "We were tired of the way candidates manipulate voters using technology," she said. "Candidates can find out what people in a certain area like in a candidate and then tailor their image to fit that or tailor their opponent's image to look opposite of that," she explained. "It leaves the voters out and manipulates the political process." As part of their effort to educate voters on political reality, the organization has recently begun to offer free online access to their vast collection of information. The online services - which include a Gopher site (gopher.neu.edu) a World Wide Web home page (http://www.vote-smart.org) and an auto-reply server (votesmart@peak.org) - provide access to a unique database compiled by hundreds of volunteers that includes a detailed directory of other political information available on the Net. "Our interns spend hours each day cruising the Internet, linking our database with every other piece of political and government information out there - a giant one-stop shopping center for anyone who needs this information but doesn't have the time to track it down," said Scott Langley, online services director. "Our interns not only created this enormous directory and update it daily - they also help those people who might need occasional assistance navigating the Web." The Project Vote Smart Web site is already receiving 4,000 to 5,000 hits a day, according to Langley. "Many states are already putting information out on the Internet that we can collect," he said. "We also formatted the information so we could point out to users the states that aren't putting out any information. That seemed to be effective in encouraging those states, and now they'll call us up or e-mail us asking how can they can get this information to us so we can get it online."

Collecting Info Candidates for federal and gubernatorial offices anywhere in the country are sent a questionnaire from Project Vote Smart designed by a bipartisan committee of political scientists from the University of Arizona and Rutgers University. Candidates are asked their views on taxes, education, crime, drugs, health care, trade, abortion rights, gun control, the environment, unemployment, defense, the national debt, program spending, and revenues priorities. "We question the candidates on the issues they're going to have to deal with if elected," explained Elm. "We ask them very specific questions in each of those areas, and we make a minimum of five contacts with each candidate to try to get them to respond. Most do, and when they respond, we put their responses in our database and they become available to the public." The Project Vote Smart database currently contains information on 20,000 candidates and elected officials nationwide. According to Elm, similar information on candidates for local and legislative offices will eventually be available as well.

Keeping it Unbiased One way Project Vote Smart ensures its non-partisanship is to keep its board balanced across the political spectrum. "If we have someone on the board with a political reputation they have to be balanced by someone from the opposite side," she explained. The organization is also particular about their sources of funding to avoid doubts about their ability to be objective. "It kind of hurts us, really, because we refuse all corporate and special-interest funding," said Elm. "We're supported entirely by individual contributions and by grants from foundations that have no corporate ties so no one can say we're biased toward one of those companies. But its a big challenge to put together a national information system with no corporate or special interest money."

Tucson to Corvallis Although Project Vote Smart began operations in a small office in Tucson, Ariz., organizers soon found their operation was growing rapidly and they lacked the amount of volunteer support required to operate effectively. That prompted a national search for a university that could provide both a good location and the support they needed. "Ninety percent of our staff are volunteers or student interns, and we rely heavily on them," said Elm. "A lot of people invited us to relocate, but we ended up at Oregon State University because the Political Science Department here loved the program, they have a strong internship program and they were delighted that their interns would have access to the program in terms of a learning experience." Elm said Oregon was also remote enough to help them maintain their non-partisan image. "If you're going to be independent, unslanted and non-partisan, people like it that you're not near a strong government beltway," she said. Project Vote Smart also maintains an office in Boston and the small office in Tucson is still used to produce the organization's publications for journalists.

Looking Ahead Project Vote Smart plans to continue to concentrate on making as much up-to-date information on political candidates available easily through its hotline and through the World Wide Web. And with a new presidential race just around the corner, they expect a significant increase in voter inquiries. "I think this kind of information is of real value in helping voters make well-informed decisions," said Langley. "And the free Web access should help make it easily accessible for everyone. I hope people will use us as a resource for the upcoming elections."

...Sidebar... The following are some of the features of Project Vote Smart's Web site (http://www.vote-smart.org):

* Photos and audio of speeches by the President, members of Congress and the Cabinet, and other policy makers. * Supreme Court decisions and biographies of the Justices. * Backgrounds of governors, state legislators and text of state laws. * Issue briefs from national, regional and local interest groups, as well as from journals, publications and university sources. * Historical documents and materials from research libraries and archives. * Issues positions and backgrounds of over 20,000 candidates and elected officials nationwide. * Voting records. * Key contacts of who knows what and where to contact them.

...Sidebar... In addition to the hotline and Web site, Project Vote Smart offers several other free services of value to voters, including:

* U.S. Government Owner's Manual and the Voter's Self-Defence Manual. These two booklets contain information on all members of Congress including voting records, addresses, campaign contributions and performance evaluations. The Owner's Manual is published in off-election years and stresses how to monitor and supervise elected officials, while the Self-Defense Manual - published during election years - offers helpful advice on how to vote smart and reports data on all candidates for federal office. * National Political Awareness Test. Both incumbents' and challengers' state campaign issue positions on the issues they will face if elected. Available through the Voter's Research Hotline (1-800/622-SMART/7627). Can also compare campaign promises with actual in-office voting records. * Reporter's Resource Center (503/737-4000). Provides journalists with free research and access to an extensive library of political reference and referral materials. * Reporter's Source Book. Provides hundreds of potential interview and information sources on public issues as well as reviews of current issues. * Tomorrow's News. A newsletter for political reporters that includes events of interest, reviews of current issues, etc.