By Dave Donaldson
How voters actually decide who will represent us — at all levels of government – has long been a mystery. Is it more from advertisements, endorsements and bumper-stickers – or from the candidates’ direct contacts with the public? A nonprofit organization that began twenty years ago is working to help voters make independent decisions on who best represents them.
Project Vote Smart began as the result of a conversation between an unsuccessful liberal candidate and then-U-S Senator Barry Goldwater, the grandfather of modern conservative politics. That talk focused on how candidates spent more time creating an image and emotion than in addressing issues and the public’s concerns. It developed with the support and work of prominent people like Goldwater and George McGovern, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford – additions to the Board of Directors are added in pairs – from different sides of the political spectrum – it’s run by people of different parties and philosophies who disagree on most issues … except one – the people need to know who is on the ballot before they make their decisions.
Through a staff consisting mostly of volunteers and interns, the organization accumulates biographical, financial and public information on some forty-thousand candidates nationwide. Then, they simply give it the people – without comment or “spin.”
Adelaide Kimball is a director and Senior adviser to Project Vote Smart. She calls the group a library of factual information on incumbents and challengers – from Presidential races to state legislative campaigns.
We focus on about six key components for each of these candidates: their voting records, their campaign contributions, their backgrounds, previous experience, their ratings by competing special interest groups, their speeches, public statements and their issue positions through the Political Courage Test – -which we give every candidate running for those offices each election year.
The Political Courage Test requires one thing: the candidates must show they are willing to tell voters how they will handle issues. If they are, the test asks them a series of questions on subjects ranging from abortion to budget, to crime, and to the environment. The questions are specific to state issues within those subjects – for example, the Alaska questionnaire asks about use of the Permanent Fund earnings, and the make-up of the state personnel board. Kimball says the group’s researchers have gone through legislative debates, speeches, and platforms to determine what the candidates are concerned about. She says Project Vote Smart consider candidates a job-applicants they should show up with their resumes and talk about how they would do the work at hand.
Increasingly, candidates are not willing to do that. They are clamming up. They are being advised by their party leaders, by their consultants not to answer questions on issues if they can get around it. They are not willing any more to expose themselves to their opponents in order to help voters figure out how they might handle these positions. So they’re just not willing to talk about them.
Candidates’ responses to the Political Courage test have been declining during the past few elections – and that decline has been bi-partisan. Kimball says they’re relying on canned messages or polling numbers rather than responding to voter interests. In Alaska in 2006, eighty percent of candidates responded, in 2008, it was only twenty five percent.
No endorsement, no campaign contributions are tied to the group, Kimball says there are no wrong answers to the test.
We bend over backwards to make sure that not only is there any bias or slant in Votes Smart’s data. There’s not even a perception of bias or slant in our data.
Information on the U-S Senate and House candidates is online now at votesmart.org. Only Republican Joe Miller and Libertarian Frederick Hasse have responded so far. State candidates for governor and the legislature have just gotten their Alaska-specific tests. Voters can encourage them to share their opinions with the public through the website.
NOTE: I have worked on other Vote Smart projects for about ten years – advising them on their Key Votes reports. I also reviewed the questions in this year’s Political Courage test.