About Project Vote Smart
Project Vote Smart's HistoryBy Richard Kimball, Vote Smart President
In a very real sense, the need for Project Vote Smart was born during the Constitutional Convention. Concerned that unbridled power would corrupt, that "factions" might deform their vision and turn it to serve selfish interests, and that an informed people was essential to success, the founders adopted a number of administrative protections, chief amongst them a system of checks and balances and the Bill of Rights.
Had they been able to witness the great fortune of their design, our founders would be pleased. However, had they also been able to witness the future ability of "factions" to torture truth and undermine the purpose of their creation by effectively frustrating the people's ability to be informed, they clearly would have created Project Vote Smart or something very much like it.
It was out of this awareness, along with discussions with U.S. Senators Barry Goldwater and George McGovern, Congresspersons William Frenzel, Jim Leach, Geraldine Ferraro, and William Clinger, and League of Women Voters Executive Director Peggy Lampl about their experiences with the changing character and conduct of candidates and campaigns that Project Vote Smart was born.
For me, the Project started one night in 1986 when I was making my closing remarks in a televised debate as the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate. My consultants, fearing that I was falling behind in the polls, had me practice a vicious attack against my opponent--a typical political strategy for a candidate in trouble. However, when the time came, I could not do it, and instead I turned to the camera and said these words:
"UNDERSTAND WHAT WE DO TO YOU; WE SPEND ALL OF OUR TIME RAISING MONEY, OFTEN FROM STRANGERS WE DO NOT EVEN KNOW. THEN WE SPEND IT IN THREE SPECIFIC WAYS: FIRST WE MEASURE YOU, WHAT IT IS YOU WANT TO PURCHASE IN THE POLITICAL MARKET PLACE -- JUST LIKE CAMPBELL'S SOUP OR KELLOGG'S CEREAL. NEXT WE HIRE SOME CONSULTANTS WHO KNOW HOW TO TAILOR OUR IMAGE TO FIT WHAT WILL SELL. LASTLY, WE BOMBARD YOU WITH THE MEANINGLESS, ISSUELESS, EMOTIONAL NONSENSE THAT IS ALWAYS THE RESULT. AND WHICH EVER ONE OF US DOES THAT BEST WILL WIN!"
It wasn't a very effective argument for getting votes, nor did it make my campaign staff very happy. But a week later, it would lead to the beginnings of Project Vote Smart. I was sitting alone with Barry Goldwater (he was retiring from the Senate seat I was running for) in his office and discussing the debate. As an old friend of my father's, I expected him to chastise my liberal positions, but no, his interest was in my closing argument. The Senator was saddened and angrily pointed out that the nature of campaigns had changed and a candidate could no longer spend their time and energy on matters of public concern. He said he just didn't want to do it anymore. I was both dumbfounded and inspired: that was why he was getting out.
Those many years ago, I had my moment of clarity and I began a long series of discussions with others, eventually including my opponent in that Senate race, John McCain, who would later become a strong proponent of Vote Smart and join its board.
It was unclear what might be done to ensure that citizens had at least one independent source to easily acquire accurate information about those who govern or those who wish to replace those who do.In 1988 we incorporated so that we might raise a little money and test various methods of providing citizens information that would be both trusted regardless of the citizen's political point of view and relevant to their own unique interests.
What we eventually decided upon remains the heart of Project Vote Smart today. We would acquire from every candidate, with or without their cooperation, a detailed application of employment -- the same kind of information, in the same categories that an employer would insist upon from one applying for any job. We asked ourselves: what does an employer need to know in order to hire prudently?
- Question 1: Background and Education?
We could collect that on the candidates.
- Question 2: References?
We could get that. The people funding their campaigns (their applications) are their references and we could list their funding sources so that any citizen could easily see who is supporting whom.
- Question 3:Evaluations of their previous work experience?
We could get that. There are over 100 conservative-to-liberal special interests that do evaluations. We would simply translate their evaluations into school grades. Citizens could easily understand and see which groups gave passing grades to their representatives and which ones flunked.
- Question 4: If they had the job before how did they perform?
That was easy. We could collect all of their voting records, and if people did not know the bill numbers or titles we could set up a system that allowed even the most unsophisticated voter to review key votes in laymen's terms, by simple subject areas.
- Question 5: Lastly, a job interview with the applicants on the matters they will hire the applicant to work on?
We could do that. Interview the candidates on issues that polls show are both of interest to their employers (voters) and that would most likely confront the applicant if hired (elected). We could even measure the degree to which a candidate would refuse to provide such information - an attitude unique to applicants for political positions and an issue of crucial importance in itself.
Political scientists and journalists were brought into the discussions and we designed a system that would both collect the information and then provide what we called "at your whim" access to information for citizens.
Student interns and volunteers, strictly supervised to ensure the accuracy and usefulness of the data, would do the information collection. The information then would be available to citizens over a toll-free Voter's Research Hotline - much like a local library. A citizen would simply pick up the phone, dial a number, and get their own researcher to look up whatever they needed to know about any candidate they were interested in. A source of accurate, dependable, relevant information to which any citizen -- right wing conservative or left wing liberal -- could turn to in absolute confidence. We would soon learn that our approach would not just be used to get basic information, but that citizens, frustrated by the manipulative tactics of the modern campaign, would use it to check the credibility of candidates' often misleading claims.
In 1990, the group decided to test their idea in the North Carolina and Nebraska Congressional Elections. Volunteers and students researched 135 foundations that seemed to have some interest in governance and applied for grants. None of the foundations were willing to fund the test. Many felt that Vote Smart was too "academic," voters would not go to the trouble of using it. One cynical candidate would later say, "They won't use it unless it comes with a free ginzu knife," or as one foundation said, "It simply isn't sexy enough."
As a result, board members contributed $40,000 to fund the two-state test. Senator William Proxmire, Congressman Jim Leach, and other board members flew to Raleigh, North Carolina and Lincoln, Nebraska, held press conferences (the only advertising we would do) and announced: If the citizens of North Carolina and Nebraska were tired of the often self-serving claims made by the campaigns they simply needed to pick up their phones, call 888-Vote-Smart and they would get a real human being who could look up any information they needed in five basic categories:
- Campaign Finances
- Performance Evaluations
- Issue Positions
- Voting Records
Wanting to prove that citizens were perfectly able and willing to defend themselves from misinformation or lack of information, students and volunteers staffed 8 phones, 24 hours a day, for two months leading up to the general election. The staff handled just over 2,000 inquiries in the two days following the press conference with the lines reaching saturation (all lines tied up) 18 times before Election Day.
The success of the test generated considerable excitement amongst the volunteers, students and board members. The success had unexpected consequences that resulted in three unique, self-imposed rules designed to protect Vote Smart's independence, public trust and unquestioned credibility in the media.
- A number of political figures suddenly became interested in becoming involved as Vote Smart board members. As a result, and at the requests of those volunteering, it was decided that no board member could join without being balanced by a political enemy.
- One labor union and a number of corporate foundations including MCI, Prudential, and AT&T offered financial support. However, volunteers asked the board to adopt a rule refusing such support, arguing that if we accepted support from organizations that lobbied, supported or opposed candidates, callers to the Hotline would question our independence and credibility. Hotly debated for a year, the suggestion was adopted and the money returned. Thus the appearance of independence became just as important as the reality of independence to Vote Smart.
- With such stringent self-imposed financial limitations and the organization's interest in expanding nationally to cover all 1992 elections, it became clear that Vote Smart would need to have hundreds of bright, competent, idealistic citizens willing to work for little or no pay. Thus the organization operates much like the Peace Corps, with full-time staff required to sign on for a two-year election tour and receive wages only sufficient to cover their basic living costs. The majority of Vote Smart workers would have to be unpaid student interns and/or full-time volunteers.
Vote Smart also recognized that to succeed it would need a constant supply of student interns and sufficient office space. Twenty-two universities competed to sponsor Vote Smart on their campus, each one willing to provide our minimum bid requirements of 2,500 sq. ft. in office space on campus and 200 students interns a year.
Oregon State University was selected to house our first center. We opened our offices there and inaugurated Project Vote Smart nationwide during the 1992 elections, covering both the Presidential contest and 1,350 candidates (third parties included) for Congress and governor. Although 450 students and volunteers worked for Vote Smart that year, it was not sufficient to handle the 211,000 citizen inquiries we received through our Voter's Research Hotline. The Hotline became so popular following a mention on PBS's "NewsHour," the telephone company registered 35,000 calls in the first 10 seconds. As a result and at the suggestion of Vote Smart Board member, Governor Michael Dukakis, we opened a second center at Northeastern University in Boston for the 1994 elections.
During the following six years, use of Vote Smart's expanding resources grew dramatically and a number of special features were added in order to help meet the demand. These included:
- A Voter's Self-Defense Manual - an 88-page digest of information on candidates and incumbents.
- The Vote Smart Web - the most sophisticated, comprehensive political information site ever constructed. The New York Times said, "It's so good even the Federal Government recommends it."
- The Reporter's Resource Center - a program with special publications and researchers to help journalists more accurately report on candidates.
- K-12 Education Program - an effort to enable teachers to use Vote Smart resources to help make politics come to life in the classroom.
- State Legislative races - we expanded our coverage to include these candidates.
By 1996, Vote Smart was confronted with a problem born out of its own success. At Oregon State University, we were running out of space and student interns essential to the work. Every senior, junior and sophomore student interested in politics that could qualify for a student internship had interned with Project Vote Smart and we were now trying to survive on the incoming freshmen classes. Having a dependable supply of students and volunteers was essential. In fact, one staff review done in 1998 showed that if we had paid all of the students and volunteers who had come to work at Vote Smart from 1992 through 1998 minimum wage, our budget would have increased over 300%.
Demands on Vote Smart were exploding and, while the universities were able to double our space, they could do no more and our bright, competent, committed, CHEAP labor pool was beginning to diminish.
In 1999, after researching 15 locations in 7 states, Vote Smart decided to build its own campus, with facilities to house the dozens of student interns applying to our new National Internship Program.
The site was selected based on three criteria:
- The location itself had to provide a strong incentive to the hundreds of young interns and full-time volunteers who would have to be convinced to give up two to ten weeks of their time, receive no pay, and do the difficult work essential to Vote Smart's success. The location's uniqueness and the recreational opportunities it provided would be the only reward most of them would ever receive.
- Vote Smart would need a number of secure T-1 lines to ensure the capacity of both our ability to do research and to distribute information to millions of citizens.
- If the location was remote, it would need to have year-round access.
A ranch with its own rivers and streams surrounded by a pristine wilderness was selected following an agreement requiring the local utility company to provide 26 miles of underground fiber optics for T-1 lines and other communication needs.
The new facilities, which we named the Great Divide Ranch, would more than triple Vote Smart's office space, housing space and web site capacities while also providing an extraordinary wilderness retreat experience for those who committed to Vote Smart's efforts.
During the 2000 and 2002 elections, it became apparent that growth in Vote Smart's programs and in the public's demand for services would require new construction. A membership fundraiser was held, enabling Vote Smart to construct four new buildings, both increasing the size of the office and providing needed living facilities for the growing number of staff, national student interns and full-time volunteers.
By 2004, new program components were added, including:
- Young Voter's Inclusion Program - Helping 18 to 25 year-olds register to vote and enabling them to acquire "at their whim" information about issues and candidates of unique interest to young voters.
- News Media Partnerships - Over 200 national and local news organizations now sponsor Vote Smart's Political Courage Test (a review of the candidates issue positions and their willingness to provide such information).
- Smart Voting at Your Library - Over 1,000 public libraries now ask to sponsor Vote Smart's programs, providing their patrons with our Voter's Self-Defense Manuals, brochures outlining our Voter's Self-Defense System (all of our programs), and assisted access to our Vote Smart Web at the library.
- Ambassador Program - Over 200 members have become Project Vote Smart Ambassadors, giving speeches and showing films on Vote Smart to community organizations throughout the country.
- City council and county office holders were added to our coverage.
- Many congressional primary candidates were added to our coverage.
- Expanded Political Courage Test coverage of State Legislative primaries.
- We began testing our ability and the usefulness of collecting all "public utterances" from Presidential candidates, members of Congress, and governors, placing them in key word searchable databases. Public utterances include speeches, interviews, newsletters and floor statements.
- Key Votes Division Previously, Vote Smart had worked with Congressional Quarterly to provide citizens with ready access to key votes. However, lobbyists, lawyers, journalists and political scientists who had previously paid CQ for access were using Vote Smart's free services instead, requiring CQ to pull support and Project Vote Smart to create its own independent Key Votes Division.
- Lodge and recreational programs- Needed to house and feed the 80 interns/volunteers who constantly cycle through Vote Smart in shifts of two to ten weeks and manage the recreational aspects of the ranch (horseback riding, boating, tennis, basketball, hiking, camping and fishing).
In 2005, we began to collect data on every elected and appointed judicial official in the nation and planned to cover all future judicial candidates in the following categories: US Supreme Court, US Court of Appeals, US District Courts, state supreme courts, state superior courts and state courts of last resort.
In 2007, three new structures were completed at Vote Smart's Great Divide Ranch Research Center to house more interns and future offices. In addition, with the help of the Hatton Sumners Foundation Vote Smart completed the last two major components of our Voter's Self-Defense System database: Key Votes in all 50 State Legislatures and the collection of all presidential and congressional candidate public statements in keyword searchable databases.
In 2008, with the completion of all six major databases, Vote Smart announced the Voter's Self-Defense System nationally. This announcement included:
- The purchase of a large high-tech, mobile classroom that traveled 47,000 miles, crisscrossing the nation during the Presidential Election year.
- Over 300 presentations and/or speeches made by Project Vote Smart Founding Board members and Project Vote Smart Member Ambassadors
- 68 news conferences or other media events.
In 2009, Vote Smart was affected by the nation's economic decline, as funding from foundation's became limited but membership contributions remained stable. Staff and non-essential program cuts were made.
In 2010, Vote Smart launched K-12 classroom curriculum materials at the National Association of Social Studies Teachers national convention. The materials were picked up and used by over 1000 school teachers throughout the country. In addition, Vote Smart tested a new interactive, automated data research system called VoteEasy. Widely hailed as an innovative tool for the average voter, VoteEasy was honored with a 2011 WebVisionary Award, Communication Arts Interactive Annual Award, and was featured as part of the Museum of Modern Art's "Talk to Me" exhibit.
Project Vote Smart provides what are perhaps the only truly positive experiences one can have in today's negative, cynical political environment. Today Vote Smart often has more people wanting to join in and experience our Great Divide Ranch retreat research facility than we can accommodate.
When considering the enormity of Vote Smart's workload and the paltry budget available for support, it becomes clear that our biggest gift comes from the student interns, volunteers, and Vote Smart staff who make the research and other operations possible. Second to those individuals are the thousands of other Americans who have heard of their efforts and contribute more than $1,000,000 (two-thirds of the annual budget) each year to support their work.
Although still in its infancy, three measures of Vote Smart's value place our significance beyond a doubt.
- After investigating every political web site in existence the American Political Science Association announced that "in all respects the Project Vote Smart Web was exceptional" and presented us a plaque proclaiming VoteSmart.org to be the "Best Political Web Site."
- Vote Smart received over one million web hits a day coming into the 2000 general elections and then saw that figure grow to 3 million in 2002 and then to 16 million in 2004 and beyond that today.
- The Markle Foundation conducted an independent study of 1199 randomly selected individuals and compared Project Vote Smart, the New York Times, CNN, Fox News, Yahoo and other major political information sources and they reported in the American Political Science Journal that Project Vote Smart was judged to be more trusted, useful and accurate than any other in existence.
Perhaps the most significant measure is that all of this is being done, not by some affluent media empire, not by some well-endowed university, but by a group of unpaid volunteers in their 70s and 80s, locking arms with hundreds of young students streaming in from every state in the union. All simply deciding that they could no longer sit back and tolerate political parties and candidates abusing their fellow citizens.
Just taking its first baby steps, Vote Smart is nowhere near maturity.
Eighty-seven percent of the country still has no idea that this effort is being made and thus cannot use it.
In the end, citizens will find out about Project Vote Smart and the millions who are tormented by the issueless, mudslinging politics of today's campaigns will find a new place to turn to in absolute confidence for the abundant, accurate, relevant information essential in a free peoples' struggle to self-govern.