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:
"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 CAMBELLS SOUP OR KELLOGGS 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. 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?
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
Over Vote Smart’s history we have received many awards and commendations
Two of the most telling are:
Vote Smart may be the only truly uplifting thing movement in politics today.