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 (email@example.com) - 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.