Gazette opinion: Nonpartisan website provides facts for smart voters

2012-09-12T00:10:00Z Gazette opinion: Nonpartisan website provides facts for smart voters The Billings Gazette
September 12, 2012 12:10 am

This season’s barrage of campaign ads packs lots of fire but little light. For voters who want objective information about their candidates, there’s a new tool on the web.

Project Vote Smart, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization based in Philipsburg, has launched Vote Easy, a user-friendly site that allows voters to see how candidate’s views match up with theirs.

Go to the Montana Vote Easy site and you will see the representations of campaign signs for the three Montanans running for U.S. Senate — Libertarian Dan Cox, Republican Dennis Rehberg and Democrat Jon Tester — and the three running for U.S. House — Republican Steve Daines, Democrat Kim Gillan and Libertarian David Kaiser. Five of the signs are marked “lacks courage;” only Kaiser is labeled “shows courage.” That means Kaiser completed Vote Smart’s Political Courage Test, a survey that asks candidates to state their position on various issues.

The other Montana candidates (like a majority of office seekers nationwide) opted not to give their issue positions in the survey. So the Vote Smart interns and volunteers did more research to infer a candidate’s positions from votes and public statements. The website carries a detailed explanation of how that is done.

The main Project Vote Smart site has a lot more information:

 Interest group ratings of candidates — year by year. The data includes about 30 interest groups’ ratings ranging across the political spectrum from ACLU to Americans for Prosperity.

 Voting records of federal and state legislators on key issues that are expected to be debated in 2013. From the voting record, users can click to the actual legislation.

 Summaries of campaign finance reports from public reports and Open Secrets.

How does Project Vote Smart pull so much data together about thousands of candidates nationwide?

It relies on dozens of interns and unpaid volunteers for 75 percent of its work, according to spokeswoman Carly Griffin. About 50 college students did 10-week internships this summer, completing “tedious, mundane research,” Griffin said. Their reward was a small salary and the opportunity to enjoy the beautiful mountain and lake country of Montana. Since the fall semester started, seven recent grads have started internships that will keep them working through Election Day. They are joined by unpaid volunteers, including some from Montana, who work for two weeks at a time on the ranch outside of Philipsburg.

Project Vote Smart was founded by prominent Republicans and Democrats. Founders such as Jimmy Carter and Bill Frist still serve on the board, which has an unusual rule: Anyone who wants to join the Project Vote Smart board must join with a political opposite. Thus, the bipartisan balance is preserved.

The organization doesn’t accept funding from political organizations or interest groups, Griffin said. Its money comes from individual donations and philanthropic organizations.

“We’re not trying to endorse anybody. We’re not trying to attack anybody. We’re trying to get information out,” said Darrin McDivitt, who manages the Vote Easy and Political Courage Test projects.

The organization is successful at getting information to voters. Between now and Nov. 6, traffic on the Vote Smart website is expected to increase to more than a million visits a day.

Griffin hopes the new Vote Easy site will generate even more visits because it is quicker to navigate.

If you want to know the facts about candidates, take the time to explore Vote Easy and Project Vote Smart.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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