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What is a "Key Vote"?

17 April 2008
Written by

Project Vote Smart provides many different types of information on candidates and elected officials nationwide, including biographical information, interest group ratings, vetoes, campaign finance data, Political Courage Test results, speeches and public statements, and voting records. Our voting records division is called the Key Votes Program.

PVS does not provide every vote ever taken by an elected official. Most votes are procedural or have little policy impact. There is a vast array of votes that we do not select for the program. These generally include votes to name a building (such as a post office) after someone, or to establish which days a chamber is going to adjourn and reconvene, or to provide rules for consideration of certain pieces of legislation, etc. Most of these votes do not do much to indicate a policy stance of the individuals who vote yes or no. Our goal is to provide you, Informed Voter, with a series of voting records that demonstrate how your elected officials stand on contentious issues. We weed out votes that do not serve this purpose well, so when you use our website you do not have to wade through a bunch of votes that are not helpful to you in order to find the ones that are. Our Key Votes Program uses a specific set of criteria to determine which votes are "key."

First, as I've touched on here already, the vote should be demonstrative of an issue stance. Again, our purpose is to inform you about the issue stances of your officials, so votes that are not indicative of these stances are not quite as useful to you.

Second, the vote should be easy to understand. If the vote is not clear, it again loses some of its usefulness. In many cases, the Key Votes Department selects votes on very long an complicated bills that we are able to make easy to understand. This is why we post summaries on the votes. Often, if you read the text of a bill that is being voted on, you will see wording such as "Sec. 2191 of Title 19 of USC is amended to read..." or "Sec. 5 of Chaper 10 of Title 4 USC is amended by striking paragraph (1) under subsection (e) and redesignating paragraphs (2) and (3) as paragraphs (1) and (2)." Wording like this, changing the United States Code, can have a big impact on law, although the bill itself is not clear about what that impact is. We in the Key Votes Department go through the US Code and do the research on the changes, so you don't have to. If you are interested, though, we always provide links to the text of the legislation so you can look at the changes yourself.

Third, the vote should have received substantial media attention. This criteria is here to ensure that we are selecting votes that you are going to be looking for, and to provide as neutral of a measure as we can about which votes are important. Project Vote Smart, in order to preserve our nonpartisanship, does not analyze information. This includes refraining from deciding which votes are important and which are not as much as we can while still providing this service. For each vote we select, we compile media articles covering that vote to demonstrate that it is worthy of attention and that people will be looking for it on our website.

Fourth, the vote should be close enough to demonstrate that there is a level of controversy on the issue. Most, but not all, votes that meet the criteria above meet this provision, also. We do not require votes to be extremely tight. A vote that passes or fails by a 85-15 margin, for instance, may be close enough. We just need to see that it isn't a mom, baseball, and apple pie vote that everyone agrees on and on which there is no contention.

Finally, very rarely we will receive calls on our hotline, 1-888-VOTE-SMART (1-888-868-3762), on a vote that didn't meet the rest of our criteria particularly well. In these cases, if enough interest in the vote is demonstrated, we will add it to our program.

Not all votes that we select meet all of these criteria extremely well, but in cases where a vote overwhelmingly meets a couple of these measures we may select it anyway. For instance, if a vote receives overwhelming press attention and clearly demonstrates a specific issue position, but passed by a vote of, say, 78-7, we may select the vote despite the fact that it was particularly lopsided. Because of the attention the vote is getting, people will be likely to be looking for it on our site, and it is useful for providing an issue position.

Congress and many states do a good job of posting online every vote taken. A handful of states allow you to go back and look at voting records from years ago. The Library of Congress currently allows you to view every vote taken by the House or Senate all the way back to 1990 in the House and 1989 in the Senate. If you want to see these votes, you can do that here.

Click here to see a list of the votes we have selected so far from Congress from 2008, and click here to see a list of all the votes we have selected from your state legislature.

Related tags: 2008, blog, key-votes

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