Media

Project Vote Smart: Experience and Lessons Learned

7 March 2013

Vote Smart exists to help citizens and organizations trying to provide citizens with easy access to abundant, accurate, relevant information about those who govern or those who wish to replace those who do.


To that end, a Voter’s Self-Defense System was envisioned, a system that provides citizens with detailed applications of employment for each elected official or candidate. Information in these applications focuses on six basic categories:

  • Biographies

  • Voting Records

  • Issue Positions

  • Special Interest Ratings

  • Public Statements

  • Campaign Finances


Data collected is provided in four basic ways:

  • Website (www.votesmart.org)

  • Toll-free Voter’s Research Hotline – 888-VoteSmart

  • Various publications – Voter’s Self-Defense Manual, U.S. Government Owner’s Manual, Reporter’s Source Book, On Common Ground

  • VoteEasy: An interactive data visualization


Board members join with a political enemy and understand that no funds will be accepted from any organizations lobbying for a cause or supporting or opposing any candidates.


Over 400 staff members and almost 8000 interns and full-time volunteers have committed from 2 weeks to 2 years to collect, maintain and distribute the data over the past 20 years. They now work primarily at a research headquarters (the Great Divide Ranch) in the Montana Rockies, and at offices affiliated with the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life at the University of Texas-Austin.


Important Statistics


In 2012, 90% of Vote Smart’s record $1.3 million dollars in contributions came from 25,784 supporting citizens and organizations dependent upon Vote Smart data.


The Vote Smart website had 7.3 million unique users during the 2012 elections. This does not count numbers of users accessing our data on secondary sites.


Vote Smart dropped all but 41 of its almost 2000 API subscribers in 2012. This was due to their unwillingness to let their users know Vote Smart is dependent upon public support for its existence. From the 41 we retained, $72,000 was raised.


A citizen using our interactive VoteEasy tool spent twice as much time and viewed twice as many pages as those visiting our far more massive and comprehensive Voter’s Self-Defense System database on our website.


Six basic categories


(They are designed to duplicate the information any employer demands when hiring any employee):


1. Biographical Information: Using web sites, publications, news and feature stories and interviews of the politicians themselves, Vote Smart staff regularly freshen the records of each elected official and all opposing candidates (during election years). As with any employer this category of data is proven essential and is one of the most used and useful to citizens.


2. Voting Records: In the 1990s it was assumed that voting records would be important to citizens so Vote Smart developed a system by which any citizen could access any vote on any bill and its text. All a citizen would need was the bill number or bill title. Academics, journalists, and opposition researchers used the system, but many voters lacked the political sophistication to understand the legislation as written. Nor did they know what specific bill number or title they were interested in.


As a result, Vote Smart collaborated with Congressional Quarterly (CQ). In that collaboration Vote Smart provided CQ with a list of issues areas based on citizen inquiries. CQ helped Vote Smart staff draft “key vote” descriptions that voters could understand and were most interested in. This system worked well for six elections until CQ discovered that their paying subscribers were coming to Vote Smart’s website to obtain vote records for free and dropping subscriptions. CQ discontinued our arrangement in 2004 shortly before we were about to announce the completion of our Voter’s Self-Defense System nationally.


Forced to remove the data jointly compiled over ten years, Vote Smart created a new Key Votes research division. This took two years, but in 2006 Vote Smart had recovered and rebuilt this crucial component of its Voter’s Self-Defense System for all key votes in congress going back to 1992. Once rebuilt and systems were adopted to maintain it, Vote Smart extended the effort to cover all 50 state legislative bodies (2007). This was made possible by building a team of 36 researchers and 173 academic and journalist advisers representing all 50 states and is now centered at Vote Smart’s University of Texas offices at the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life.


3. Issue Positions: Vote Smart interviews all candidates for state legislature, governor, congress and the presidency on the issues polls show are of greatest interest to citizens and that leadership suggests are most likely to be confronted if elected.


Staff was required to document a minimum of six separate efforts to compel each candidate to answer the questions: three efforts on behalf of staff (mail, phone calls and emails), one by a major media partner from the candidate’s home state, one from a prominent political leader of the candidate’s own party (Examples: Goldwater, McGovern, McCain, Dukakis, Ferraro, Frist, etc.) and one from Vote Smart’s president.


If a candidate said no or failed to respond to any of the six requests over a six-week period it was assumed that it would be difficult for citizens to acquire this essential information. It is important to note that the percentage of candidates in both major parties willing to answer issue questions has never varied more than 2% in the last eight general elections.


Over the past two decades, as more money has entered the political marketplace it has enabled more candidates to control their message and avoid exposure on issues that their campaigns have not stamped as safe. Political parties and consultants began compelling candidates not to provide Vote Smart with information for fear of opposition research. In extreme cases Vote Smart staff and students would be bullied, as in the case with a would-be U.S. Senate Majority Leader whose campaign threated to have Vote Smart’s 501(c)(3) status removed if we exposed the fact that the Senator refused to provide us with any information.


These fears were not unfounded. In dozens of cases Vote Smart’s reputation was used to to attack candidates, as was the case with an organization called The Club for Growth. It created TV attack ads by copying Vote Smart’s logo and web site and then inserted false information to damage candidates they did not approve of.


The number of candidates agreeing to provide issue positions plummeted from 72% in 1996 to 40% by 2008. The only year (2002) there was an uptick (2%) in the number of candidates providing information was when a national news organization’s foundation convinced its newspapers to intensely pressure candidates into responding to Vote Smart’s inquiries. However, the following year that foundation’s leadership changed and so did their interests.


As a result, and in order to aid voters, Vote Smart now answers a sampling of the questions (from 12 to 20) on behalf of the candidates who refuse. These responses are based on a careful examination of each candidate’s public record. This requires hours of data analysis on each candidate by a research team of 32 working under the guidance of Vote Smart’s board and both academic and journalist advisors. All candidates are invited to change their stated position or any staff-inferred position based on their public record at any time.


4. Public Statements: Because increasing numbers of candidates fear opposition research and refuse to provide meaningful issue positions beyond those deemed safe, Vote Smart staffed a new division in 2007 to collect all the public comments and place those comments in a key word searchable database. For example: if a candidate will not respond to a specific question on immigration, a citizen can type in the word immigration and see what, if anything, the candidate ever was willing to say about that -- or any other subject.


5. Special Interest Performance Ratings: There are hundreds of special interest organizations that evaluate elected officials and candidates based on their concerns. Each of these organizations has its own way of grading candidates. Some may use plus and minus marks, some use letter grades, some percentages and still others various graphic symbols. Vote Smart created a research division that constantly searches the web for any organized interest that does candidate evaluations. Once found each organization is briefly described and their evaluations analyzed. To provide the public some consistency and ability to understand these many and varied methods of evaluation, they are translated into the percentage of time each candidate or elected official supports that organization’s interests.


6. Campaign Finances: Two other 501(c)(3) organizations collect, analyze and provide campaign finance information. They are the Center for Responsive Politics, specializing in federal offices, and the National Institute on Money in State Politics, focusing on state level offices. Both have impeccable reputations and have agreed to partner with Vote Smart to enable citizens to better understand and access each candidate’s major sources of political contributions.


The six categories represent Vote Smart’s primary focus but they do not represent all that Vote Smart has done or does. For instance, Vote Smart provides information on ballot measures in every state, on voter registration, on federal and state judiciary, and even other state-wide, county and local officials.


The System’s Design Success:


Vote Smart has become the source of trusted, accurate, comprehensive relevant information for millions of voters, journalists, academics, even opposition researchers but that is not its greatest success. As one of our member interns, a retired corporate efficiency expert for IBM and AT&T, said, “I have never seen anything like this, nor have I ever evaluated a team of workers more interested in their work or more productive and dedicated.”


Most people evaluate an organization’s potential based on its annual budget. Vote Smart’s annual budget runs between $1 - $1.3 million depending on the year. No one visiting Vote Smart or reviewing the immense database that is continually maintained could reasonably think that such a thing could be done for such a small sum. The annual budget is a poor measure of Vote Smart’s worth or potential.


At Vote Smart it is not simply a cliché to say our value is in our people. Vote Smart receives about 700 applications each election cycle from students and members wanting to work at Vote Smart. This is far more than we can possibly manage or afford. Each applicant must interview, provide references and be willing to provide for their own transportation. If they are amongst the few lucky enough to be selected they are in for the some of the most difficult, even monotonous work imaginable, and they will do it for nothing. They get no pay. In fact, if they are older (member volunteers) they have to work minimum 40 hour work weeks and are required to help pay for the experience. If we had to pay minimum wage to these volunteers our budget would need to go up over 200%.


Vote Smart works because it operates like the Peace Corps with a dedicated staff, only it provides an extraordinary work setting and experience with exceptional recreational opportunities high in the Montana Rocky Mountains. It is the experience they get that is seen as the pay. It is what has brought judges, teachers, journalists, labor leaders, corporate executives – people as diverse as NASA launch directors and professional wrestlers to join with almost 8000 interns over 20 years, all coming to help build the Voter’s Self-Defense System.


Two toughest lessons learned?


Data Visualizations


For over a decade Vote Smart worked at various methods of building the Voter’s Self-Defense System. During this process Vote Smart received a great many very flattering commendations. However, the focus was always on completing the system, and completing the system meant having compiled detailed applications of employment on thousands of candidates whether they cooperated or not. We thought we had accomplished this goal in 2002 and made plans to officially announce our success, but setbacks delayed this.

Congressionally Quarterly pulled the plug on our Key Votes Division. We rebuilt it. Then it became apparent that the major political parties had effectively dismantled our ability to acquire useful issue positions by convincing candidates not to provide those issue positions in a meaningful way. So we researched and provided their positions for them.


In 2008 we finally had the entire system up and operating and spent close to $1 million in full-page newspaper ads and a 45,000 mile national tour to deliver the Voter’s Self-Defense System to the country. What better way, we thought, to conquer misinformation and tortured truth than our immense database of abundant, accurate factual information on those seeking to represent us. It would now be up to citizens to use it, to flock to it. But they didn’t.


The system was seen by many as a success and caught the notice of 40 million citizens, but not a single national news organization covered it. Our usage sky-rocketed, but studies following the 2008 elections showed that 87.5% of Americans had not heard of us and were still totally in the dark. It was as if Vote Smart had gone on a quest for the Holy Grail, found it, spent years bringing it home, only to find out most of the nation did not give a damn.


We asked ourselves why? And then we began researching the Voter’s Self-Defense System user’s experience. We discovered that time was a serious issue. On average it took a citizen using the system 40 minutes to look up a single candidate on a single issue and find all the data we had compiled on it in each of our categories. The information was there but citizens would need to spend hours looking up all of the candidates they had to decide on and all the issues they were interested in. It was too much data, too deep, too rich.


The Voter’s Self-Defense System had to be simplified, lead users into one quick, tasty, juicy bite. Then maybe they could learn to enjoy and digest the reality that the Voter’s Self-Defense System represented.


In 2010 Vote Smart tested VoteEasy, an interactive tool that allowed citizens to match their own issue positions with those of the candidates on a small sampling of twelve issues. Users type in their zip code, answer a few questions on key issues and watch as the candidates’ campaign yard signs advance or recede depending on their agreement. If the users question the movement of a sign or want more detail they simply click on it and see the candidate’s public record on that issue.


Our modest test of VoteEasy went viral. So many people used it that we were unable to handle the demand on Election Day and our servers crashed. We hit one out of the park.

By 2012 we were able to set up a similar system for the presidential race and for every congressional race. Usage went up 50% and more importantly people spent twice as much time on VoteEasy and had twice as many page views compared to those using our general far more powerful, deeper, richer Voter Self-Defense System website. Citizens simply did not want, or did not have the time to do the research. Because of our unquestioned credibility users just wanted the candidate’s position quickly exposed on the various issues of unique concern to them.


The experience was a revelation to Vote Smart. VoteEasy is just a tiny sampling of what we are capable of. We have all the data on thousands of candidates and could go much deeper than just these few basic issues.


The lesson learned with VoteEasy was that the delivery of the Voter’s Self-Defense System is the key to citizen interest and use. It is not enough to be accurate, abundant and relevant, our delivery system must also be fast, easy and….entertaining! Plans for future elections will focus on developing new interactive tools that combine and synthesize the data.


Today, Vote Smart staff is busy developing coding systems by issues and topics for every piece of data entering the Voter’s Self-Defense System. They will then go back and code the millions of records already entered.


Currently, Vote Smart staff is communicating with a number of organizations offering advice and assistance in the creation of interactive data-visualizations one our coding program has been completed. Google, The New York Times, MIT and the Texas Advanced Computer Center, which is in possession of one of the world “Super Computers,” are amongst those offering assistance.


In the end it is Vote Smart’s hope that we will be able to create far more sophisticated but entertaining, powerful but simple, arduous to create but instantly gratifying, data visualizations for millions of unique users.


Foundation Support


Few foundations will give long-term general support and all understandably want to be on the cutting edge of some new, hopefully successful idea. Vote Smart did not originally plan to be a membership-supported organization. For 18 years Vote Smart received 70% of its financial support from foundations. Today less that 8% comes from foundations, 85% from members and 7% from API users. This transformation to a membership organization happened in three ways:


1.The NewsHour on PBS did a 7-minute segment reporting what Vote Smart was trying to do and more importantly how it was doing it. They ended the segment with Vote Smart’s toll-free hotline number. Just after the program ended, Vote Smart took a call from the vice president of the regional telephone company providing for our 5-state region asking, “Who the hell are you?” We explained that we were a voter education group. He angrily responded, “Ten minutes ago we got hit by 35,000 simultaneous telephone calls and our computers crashed.” The calls did not stop for two weeks, thousands of people wanted to help and almost $50,000 in unsolicited contributions came in. We had discovered that citizens might be willing to fund Vote Smart.


2. As it turned out the NewsHour coverage would be the only national coverage reporting what Vote Smart was doing. So mailing drives were begun and by 2004 membership hit its high mark of 43,000. However, those mailing drives that once cost $.16 per letter in the 1990s now cost $.47 cents and the mailings had to be discontinued in 2005. Membership now stands at 25,784 and grows solely by word of mouth and citizens discovering us on the internet.


3. Foundation support was maintained for 16 years by coming up with new innovations, often contorting our language and programs to fit the latest fad. As the foundation lost interest or its leadership changed, some of those innovations would later be sustained by member contributions.


Vote Smart’s experience suggests that we no longer seek funding for any effort that has no real chance of being sustained by the users of that program once foundation support is ended. Because Vote Smart is fueled almost entirely by passion, its greatest difficulties can occur when funding is removed, laying waste to what is often thousands of hours of effort on the part of a great many devoted staff, students and volunteers. These programs are inevitably designed to serve those that have become dependent upon them (disenfranchised, young, new citizens) but lack the resources to sustain funding of it themselves.


Conclusion


In conclusion, Vote Smart has amassed and continues to maintain a factual, non-partisan, trustworthy resource for voter education that the nation has never seen the like of before. Vote Smart’s information and tools serve as a cornerstone for the efforts of other non-profit, government, and media organizations who also depend on it.


Vote Smart’s future growth and the nation’s political health depends upon our ability to sustain the information-gathering processes and to create delivery systems that the public will find both entertaining, interactive, personal and powerful.


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