A year ago I was ready to put our research facilities on the auction block to pay the bills. However, we have had a record membership fundraising year and some of the foundations that pulled the plug on our brand of civics education four years ago are at least talking to us again.
Back in 2008 I thought our spending $700,000 to announce the completion of our Voter Self-Defense Systems was a failure. Board members and staff traveled over 60,000 miles in that effort and I knew that it would take the country by storm. Well it didn’t. It never reached the critical mass I was so certain it would. We never got a single national news story and only reached 12.5% of the voters, leaving 87.5% completely ignorant of our existence.
Our “Project” has received every award imaginable, journalists and academics praise it as the best there is. The government uses it to inform our overseas troops, “fact checkers” use us as their primary source, and we are, of course, God’s gift to opposition researchers. But only a small percentage of voters take the time to vote smart. I thought about this a great deal. Why would voters not mob such a simple solution to their frustration with the massive manipulative tactics of modern campaigns?
The Voter’s Self-Defense System is just too good, too rich with data, too deep, too sophisticated, too DIFFICULT. For example: Say a voter wanted to look up Sen. Harry Reid’s votes on off-shore oil drilling. The voter would pull up Sen. Reid on our web site, go to Key Votes and see how he voted. Then perhaps the voter would like to see if he had ever made any comments about it. The voter would exit our Key Votes database and go into Public Statements, pull up Sen. Reid, type in the words “off-shore oil drilling,” and any time he had ever mentioned it would be highlighted. The voter would have to repeat this process to get any ratings from oil or environmental interests, repeat it for campaign contributions from those sources, and repeat it again for any issue positions he had given during previous campaigns or to get any related background from his biography. It would take the voter about 40 minutes to finish and have an excellent review of all the factual evidence regarding Sen. Reid and his position on that issue. Then perhaps the voter might want to look at Mr. Reid’s opponent or opponents, or was also interested in other issues or perhaps other candidates for other offices. That would take hours and few voters have the time or willingness to give that kind of effort to research candidates.
That is the reason we tested an idea called VoteEasy in 2010. It is a dramatic simplification of the Voter’s Self-Defense System that would automate research on a dozen issues for all congressional candidates.
A voter would simply type in their zip code and each of their candidate’s yard signs would appear on the capitol lawn. The user could then state their position on an issue of major concern and watch as each candidate’s sign either advanced or receded depending on their level of agreement. Should the user question the movement of the signs they could click on the sign and see the factual evidence in Vote Smart’s database supporting the movement.
VoteEasy went viral, and by Election Day so many people were using it and sharing it with others that Vote Smart lacked the server capacity to handle the demand.
Advancing that test in 2012 we accomplished the following:
Managed the research capacity and demand for a Presidential VoteEasy covering the top 20 candidates for President.
Updated the data on 535 sitting members of Congress in all six of our factual categories and researched and tracked down the existing records on over 1000 other candidates seeking congressional seats. This enabled us to provide VoteEasy candidate comparisons on every congressional race in the country during the 2012 races.
Provided VoteEasy candidate comparison research to NBC and its users. NBC partnered with Vote Smart in 2012 to get access to VoteEasy data.
Vote Smart data was also provided to 30 subscribing (paying) commercial users, raising an additional $72,000 in funds never before available. Some of these major users were: MTV, Overseas Voter Foundation, Democracy Live, NBC, American Towns and the Federal Voting Assistance Program that serves overseas military and State Department personnel.
It is impossible to accurately estimate the number of people using Vote Smart or VoteEasy information because we do not have access to the records of the 40 plus other organizations and corporations providing access to our data through their own web sites. However, we can say that through our web site there were 15 million page views and roughly 30% of those were in VoteEasy.
Unique visitors to Vote Smart went up by 1.8 million (33%) over 2010, with the VoteEasy tool usage growing by 53%.
It is telling and important to note that voters using VoteEasy spent roughly twice as much time and visited twice as many pages when on VoteEasy as compared to those using our much deeper and more comprehensive databases on the Vote Smart web site. Although VoteEasy does not contain anywhere near the amount of data obtainable on Vote Smart’s database and is in fact a bare-bones tool compared to what is possible, voters are strongly engaged by it and spent a great deal more time learning about candidates. VoteEasy-like tools are the future of civics education.
VOTE SMART’S FUTURE
Vote Smart staff and board members began conducting a series of meetings in October. Knowing of VoteEasy’s popularity during the 2012 election, Vote Smart staff began setting in motion a series of research and retooling efforts to make far more striking interactive data visualizations possible.
A sampling of ideas currently being discussed and worked on at Vote Smart and the Texas Advanced Computer Center at the University of Texas include:
Political Galaxy: An interactive application that would automatically combine like pieces of information that a user has expressed interest in. For example: If a user asks how Sen. Reid voted on off-shore oil drilling the tool would swirl together the galaxy of political data that Vote Smart represents lighting up those stars that represent information related to the user’s inquiry. Not only the answer requested. but other stars where related information exists would appear as well. This might be contributions from oil or environmental interests, interest group ratings, public statements, previous issue positions or even biographical data showing experience in the subject matter. This would reduce the current need for up to an hour of research in our database to a few minutes.
Report Card: When a voter wants to see how a candidate is rated by various special interests they could go to our databases and instead of seeing long lists of digits representing more than 200 competing special interests, they would simply see a report card much like one would get in school. They draw their cursor through the names of the special interests they are concerned with and the grades would instantly appear, representing the evaluations done on them by those organizations.
Ocean of Cash: Again, instead of seeing endless rows of digits representing campaign contributions from interests, a user would simply see a seething ocean of dollar bills. As they draw their cursor through the names of special interests the ocean peaks in waves or drops into troughs representing the relative amount of money received from each interest.
Candidate Cloud: A representation of each candidate’s preference for key words or phrases shown in clouds representing the issues they talked about most often. For example, if “border fence” is a popular theme it would show up as a large cloud. If “acid rain” is rarely or never mentioned it would be a tiny cloud or not appear at all.
Web/Mobile App: This involves the designing of all our interactive tools and our web site itself into systems that can easily be used and understood on hand held devices.
These and perhaps other innovative ideas will all require retooling of Vote Smart’s databases and the way staff collects and inputs data.
What has been done and is being done now:
Vote Smart staff has conducted a thorough review of all other political web sites to ascertain which, if any, have the content that could add value to our factual databases.
All but four political organizations on the web were found to either use our databases to anchor their own data, twist data to support a partisan cause, or be inaccurate or incomplete. Of the four found that might provide useful information additions, Vote Smart already has collaborations with two: The Center for Responsive Politics and the National Institute on Money in State Politics. These two organizations provide Vote Smart with campaign finance data. However, the divisions and definitions of their categories do not directly correspond to Vote Smart’s issue categories in Key Votes, Ratings, Issue Positions and Public Statements, or biographical databases. In order to create comprehensive new visualizations Vote Smart wants to make sure that data is divided into parallel categorizations that can be matched with subjects in other databases. As one example, campaign contributions from oil or environmental interests could be exhibited side by side with votes on a pipeline. Vote Smart has met with the principals at these two organizations and they are excited to work with us to make such a system work.
The other two organizations, Factcheck.org and Politifact.com use Votes Smart for their own research purposes but Vote Smart has no formal relationship with either, nor do Vote Smart staff have the journalistic training to do the kinds of evaluations these organizations are capable of. Vote Smart might have an interest in working with these two groups to help evaluate the accuracy and often conflicting claims made by competing candidates. Vote Smart met with these organizations in early December and they are also excited about the prospects of collaborating with Vote Smart.
Some of the ideas already being discussed include sharing their evaluations for display in Vote Smart’s Voter’s Self-Defense System. Again as one example: When a user is looking up a candidate’s position on illegal immigration and records show that a candidate has changed his position on that issue or that they have made claims on the issue that have proven to be inaccurate, that analysis would be provided. Also, training Vote Smart interns and staff at a kind of “FactCheck Academy” at the Annenberg School in Philadelphia, factcheck.org’s headquarters, might be possible.
Crucial to successfully implementing advanced interactive systems that instantaneously pull together related information without requiring hours of research time would be the coding of all Vote Smart data. It is the most difficult and time consuming of all the steps that will need to be taken in order to make the interactive data visualizations possible. Not only must we code each bit of data to an appropriate issue, elected official or candidate subject as it is being added to the Vote Smart database, but we must also go back through years of data that has been added in the past and code that historical data as well. The coding is required in order for the computer programmers to design systems that will automatically pull like pieces of information together for each individual and unique user.
This coding is essential to the process and will take one year to complete. Upon completion it will provide Vote Smart programmers with the data, pre-coded in the system, necessary for the creation of far more sophisticated data visualizations and customized desktop and mobile devices. Each will be able to service the unique interests of each user in real time as research is completed and added to our own databases.
If we are successful, it will be a very powerful antidote to the manipulations of modern-day political tactics. It has all been made possible through the confidence and support of 25,000 contributing members.
Vote Smart President