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About Project Vote Smart

Project Vote Smart's History

By Richard Kimball, Vote Smart President

In a very real sense the need for Project Vote Smart was born in the 1787 Constitutional Convention. Unbridled power, "factions" that might deform their vision and an informed people were our Founding Fathers’ paramount concerns.

Had they also been able to witness the great fortune of their design they would be pleased. However, had they also been able to witness the future ability of "factions" to torture truth, influence the structure and purpose of their creation by effectively frustrating the people's ability to be informed, they clearly would have created Vote Smart or something very much like it.

It was through this awareness by political leaders of both parties (Ford, Carter, Goldwater, McGovern, Frenzel, Leach, Ferraro, Proxmire, Hatfield etc.) and members of groups like the League of Women Voters, Common Cause and the American Taxpayers Union, along with third party leaders like the Libertarian, Green and Natural Law Parties and their concerns about the changing character and conduct of politicians 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 the politician in trouble. However, when the time came, I could not do it, and instead I turned to the camera and said these words:


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. One of the few who at the time actually heard and understood what I had said, the Senator was disturbed and angrily pointed out that the nature of campaigns had changed and politicians 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 it began a long series of discussions over many years with others, eventually to include my opponent in that Senate campaign, John McCain, who would later become a strong proponent of the Project and join its board.

It was unclear what might be done to insure that citizens had at least one source to easily acquire accurate information about those that govern or those that wish to replace those who do.

In 1988 Vote Smart incorporated so that we might raise a little money and test various methods of providing citizen information that would be both trusted, regardless of the citizen's political point of view, and relevant to their own perhaps unique interests.

What we eventually decided remains as the heart of Project Vote Smart today. We would acquire from each candidate, with or without their cooperation, a detailed application of employment -the same kind of information, in the same categories that any employer would insist upon from anyone else applying for any other kind of job. We asked ourselves: what does an employer need to know in order to hire prudently?

  • Background and education: We could collect that on the politicians from both their own words and secondary sources.
  • Their references: We could research the people funding their campaigns (their applications of employment).
  • Evaluations of their previous work experience: We could investigate and collect the over 300 conservative-to-liberal special interests who did evaluations of their performances as it applied to the organization’s selfish interests.
  • How they performed in their last job: We could collect all of their voting records and categorize them by subject.
  • Lastly, an employer interviews the applicant on the matters that they will hire the applicant to work on: We could interview the politicians on the issues polls showed were 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 politician would refuse to provide such information - an attitude unique to applicants for political positions and amazingly acceptable to those hiring them.

Political scientists and journalists were brought into the discussions and we designed a system that both would collect the information and then provide what we called "at your whim" access to citizens. We called it a Voter’s Self-Defense System.

The information collection would be done by student interns and volunteers, strictly supervised to insure the accuracy and usefulness of the data. Then the information would be available to citizens over a toll-free Voter's Research Hotline - much like a local library. A citizen would simply have to pick up the phone, dial a number and get their own researcher to look up whatever they needed about any politician they were interested in.

The Voter’s Self-Defense System would be 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 a politician’s often misleading claims.

In 1989, the group decided to test their idea during the 1990 elections in North Carolina and Nebraska. Volunteers and students researched 135 foundations that seemed to have some interest in governance and applied for grants. However none of the foundations were willing to fund the test. Many felt that the project was too "academic" and voters would not go to the trouble of using it. As one presidential campaign 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 test which would be conducted during the last two months of the 1990 general election. Senator William Proxmire (Dem.) and Congressman Jim Leach (Rep.) flew to Raleigh, North Carolina and Lincoln, Nebraska, held press conferences (the only advertising we would do) and announced that 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-VoteSmart and they would get a real human being—a researcher who could look up any information they needed in five basic categories:

  • Biographical
  • 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 the two months leading up to the general election. The staff handled just over 2000 inquiries in the two days following the press conferences with the lines reaching saturation (all lines being used) 18 times before Election Day.

The success of the test generated considerable excitement amongst the volunteers, students and board members. As a result, three unique self-imposed rules were designed to protect the Project's independence, public trust and unquestioned credibility:

  1. Each member of the Vote Smart Board with a political reputation could not be a memberwithout being balanced by a member who was a “political enemy.”
  2. One labor union and a number of corporate foundations including MCI, Prudential, and AT&T offered support. However, a rule was adopted prohibiting support from corporate or lobbying organizations on the argument that if such support were accepted, callers to the Voter’s Research Hotline would question our independence and our credibility. Thus the appearance of independence became just as important as the reality of independence to Vote Smart.
  3. With such stringent self-imposed financial limitations and the organization’s interest in covering all congressional races nationwide by the 1992 general election, it became clear that it 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 a full-time staff that must sign on for a two-year election tour and receive wages only sufficient to cover their basic housing and food costs. But 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 campuses, each one willing to provide a minimum bid of 2,500 sq. ft. in office space on campus and 200 students interns a year to work on it.

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 the presidential and gubernatorial contests and 1350 candidates (third parties included) for congress. Although 450 students and volunteers worked on Vote Smart’s programs that year it was not sufficient to handle the 211,000 citizen inquiries we received through our Voter's Research Hotline. During that election PBS’s NewsHour did a seven-minute segment covering what Vote Smart was going to try and build, ending the show with Vote Smart’s Hotline number on the screen. Vote Smart was immediately hit with so many simultaneous calls that the computers at Northwestern Bell (the telephone operating company in the northwest region of the U.S.) crashed. It was estimated that the company received 35,000 calls in a ten-second period. The calls continued to pour in for weeks and Vote Smart suddenly quadrupled its membership.

As a result of this success, and at the suggestion of Governor Michael Dukakis, a Project Board member, we opened a second research center at Northeastern University in Boston in 1994.

During the following six years Vote Smart’s database grew significantly more powerful and the use of the Project's growing resources continued to grow. A number of special features were added in order to help meet the demand. These included:

  1. Voter's Self-Defense Manual - an 88-page digest of information on Congressional politicians.
  2. Vote Smart Website - the most sophisticated, comprehensive political information site ever constructed. The New York Times says, "It's so good even the Federal Government recommends it."
  3. Reporter's Resource Center and Reporter’s Source Book - programs and publications that helped journalists more accurately report on politicians.
  4. K-12 Education Program - curriculum materials to enable teachers to use Vote Smart resources to help make politics come to life in the classroom.
  5. State Legislative Races - we expanded our coverage to include these and other state level politicians.

A test was done in the Greater Atlanta and San Francisco Bay Area, where Vote Smart data wasdistributed by bi-lingual Hotline researchers and information on local candidates was available in Spanish, Vietnamese and Mandarin. A post-election study by Oregon State University and Washington State University proved the data had a very positive impact on minorities, low income and poor, disenfranchised voters.

By 1997 Vote Smart was confronted with a serious problem born out of its own success. At Oregon State University we were running out of space and the student interns essential to the work. Every senior, junior and sophomore student interested in politics that could qualify for a student internship had done it with Project Vote Smart and we were now trying to survive on the incoming freshmen classes. Having a dependable supply of students and volunteers working on the Project 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%, which would have resulted in bankruptcy.

Demands on the Project were exploding and while the universities were able to double our space they could do no more, and our bright, competent, committed, inexpensive labor pool was beginning to diminish.

In 1999, after searching 15 locations in 7 states Vote Smart decided to build its own campus. The site was selected based on three criteria:

  1. 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 unique recreational opportunities would be the only reward most of them would ever receive.
  2. Vote Smart would need secure T-1 lines to insure an uninterrupted ability to both do rapid, detailed research and to disseminate our data to millions of citizens.
  3. Although some potential locations providing recreational opportunities were remote, the site selected would have to have dependable year round access.

A ranch in the Montana Rockies with lakes 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 facility, within a few miles of the Continental Divide, was named the Great Divide Ranch Research Retreat. The principal road on the property was re-named One Common Ground. The facilities more than tripled Vote Smart’s office space, housing space and website capacities. The Great Divide Ranch, with its own streams, lakes and surrounded by snow-capped peaks, also provided an extraordinary wilderness experience for those willing to do the grueling work at Vote Smart.

By the end of the 2000 general elections Vote Smart had completed all of the essential components of the original program design. We were covering all federal, gubernatorial and state legislative politicians with our five categories of data: Biographies, Voting Records, Issue Positions, Special Interest Ratings, and Campaign Finances, and began to plan a national tour to announce the completion of the Voter’s Self-Defense System for the 2004 election.

However, we ran into a big stumbling block. Key Votes, the most important component of our voting records database had been compiled jointly since 1992 with an organization called Congressional Quarterly (CQ), thus it was jointly owned. CQ had discovered that many of their paying subscribers were dropping their subscriptions because they could get the information they needed free from Vote Smart. This resulted in CQ dropping their collaboration with Vote Smart and threatening to sue if these Key Votes were not removed from our database.Rebuilding twelve years of Key Votes required creating a new Key Votes Division at Vote Smart, with more staff, more interns and more facilities, before we could formally announce the completion of the Voter’s Self-Defense System.

A fundraiser was held, enabling Vote Smart to construct a new office building and three new cabins for housing staff, students and full-time volunteers.

By 2005, other new Program components were added, including:

  1. Young Voter Inclusion Program - Helping 18-to-25-year-olds become registered to vote and enabling them to acquire "at their whim information" about issues and politicians of unique interest to young voters.
  2. News Media Partnerships - Over 200 national and local news organizations sponsoring the National Political Awareness Test (now called the Political Courage Test)—a review of politicians’ issue positions and their willingness to provide such information to the public.
  3. Smart Voting at Your Library - Over 5000 public libraries asked 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 Website at the library.
  4. Ambassador Program - Over 200 members have become Project Vote Smart Ambassadors, giving speeches and showing films on the Project to community organizations throughout the country.
  5. City council and county office holders were added to our coverage.
  6. Most congressional primary contests were added to our coverage.
  7. Lodge and Recreational Programs - Needed to house and feed an average of 80 intern/volunteers who constantly cycle through the Ranch in terms of two weeks to ten weeks, and to provide the horseback riding, boating, tennis, basketball, volleyball, skiing, hiking, camping and fishing recreational opportunities on the Ranch.Vote Smart hoped to finally announce the completion of the Voter’s Self-Defense System in 2006 but another key component of our database was in trouble—the Political Courage Test. This is an effort to organize 200 media organizations from daily newspapers to national magazines and television networks like NBC, CBS, Fox News, MTV, CNN, and key leaders of both major parties such as Goldwater, Dukakis, McCain, Gingrich and McGovern to compel candidates to answer issue questions. The Courage Test was 10 years old and had gotten up to 72% of the candidates to answer issue question, even those not approved as safe by their pollsters. However, the percentage of those providing the information had plummeted to less than 50% with those having the biggest financial war chests, the incumbents, going down to 26%.

This required us to put the brakes on a second time and create yet another whole research division at Vote Smart. It was a team to collect every public comment (speech or interview) of every gubernatorial, congressional and presidential politician and put them in key word searchable databases. The purpose was to provide to citizens any comments ever made on a subject even when the politician would not answer a direct questions regarding it.

In 2008, with the completion of what was now all six major databases, Vote Smart announced the Voter's Self-Defense System nationally. This announcement included:

  1. The purchase of a large high-tech, mobile classroom that traveled 47,000 miles, crisscrossing the nation during that Presidential Election year.
  2. Over 300 presentations and/or speeches made by Project Vote Smart Founding Board members and Project Vote Smart Member Ambassadors
  3. 68 news conferences and other media events.
  4. A full-page ad in the New York Times.

According to surveys conducted by Oregon State University and Washington State University, Vote Smart was able to reach 12.5% of the American public with knowledge of its immense database.

To many this was a success but to this writer it was a failure. The expectation was that it would take the country by storm. What better solution to our frustration with the behavior of politicians than a database that contained every relevant fact on that behavior?In analyzing the user’s experience on our website after the 2008 elections it seemed clear that the database was too rich, too deep and required too much time for citizens to navigate.

In 2010, during the congressional elections, a new system of data delivery was tested, based on data visualization models. Called VoteEasy, the system simply required the user to type in their zip code and all of the candidates in their area appeared on lawn signs in front of the Capitol building. When the user answered twelve questions on major issues facing the country, the yard signs would either retreat in disagreement or advance in agreement, depending on their public record. If the user questioned the signs’ movement they simply clicked on it and could see the factual evidence in a voting record, statement, rating, or other factual evidence.

The system became so popular that during the 2010 elections, even when extra computer servers were installed, our computer servers went down for the first time in Vote Smart history. It had gone “viral” and we were not prepared to handle the demand.

VoteEasy greatly enhanced our K-12 classroom curriculum materials. The materials were used by over 1000 school teachers throughout the country.

Widely hailed as an innovative tool for the average voter, VoteEasy was honored with a 2011 WebVisionary Award, a Communication Arts Interactive Annual Award, and was selected for the Museum of Modern Art's "Talk to Me" exhibit showing the most advanced methods of displaying complex data sets.

Two years later the VoteEasy interactive visualization was again tested during the 2012 general elections. This time it included the presidential candidates, and more backup servers were in place. Unique visitors to Vote Smart went up by 1.8 million (33%) over 2010, with VoteEasy usage growing by 53%.

It seems clear that citizens do not have either the time or interest to spend examining the “Big Data” that Vote Smart accumulates and makes understandable and useful on politicians. For this reason, in 2014 Vote Smart will continue to expand VoteEasy and combine it with two other visualizations that allow citizens to track the representatives they have hired.

In 2013 the staff is updating all information on every elected official and potential candidate and coding the data according to issue area. They are also going back in time and coding by issue every piece of data that has been obtained over time. By February 2014 an extraordinary array of new, simple but powerful interactive tools will be available:

  1. Political Galaxy (PG): An interactive visualization that enables a user to simply type in a politician of interest and pick an issue of concern to them. Political Galaxy will instantly show them every fact that exists in all six important categories related to that candidate and that issue.
  2. The user will also be able to type in the name of the candidate they are interested in and click on any one of our six categories and be able to instantly review that information on the candidate they are concerned with.
  3. VoteEasy will be enhanced and more comprehensive, allowing each user to compare candidates side by side on the issues they may be uniquely interested in.

Over Vote Smart’s history we have received many awards and commendations

Two of the most telling are:

  1. The American Political Science Association (APSA) created seven regional committees to select the most useful Political web site. Each group, independently selected Vote Smart’s site and at their national convention APSA announced that "in all respects the Project Vote Smart website was exceptional" and presented us a plaque proclaiming to be the "Best Political Website."
  2. The Markle Foundation conducted an independent study of 1199 randomly selected individuals who compared Project Vote Smart, the New York Times, CNN, Harvard, Fox News, Yahoo and other major political information sources. An article about the study reported in the American Political Science Journal that Project Vote Smart was judged to be more trusted, useful and accurate than all the other sites.

Vote Smart may be the only truly uplifting movement in politics today.

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