So, how was it that an otherwise normal student from the United Kingdom decided to spend his first three months after graduation on a remote ranch in the Montana mountains, tracking the doings of legislators in states he's never visited and helping citizens from across the length and breadth of America, who call in with questions ranging from Governor Schwarzenegger's position on swamp-dredging to the ethnic demographics of Colorado counties and the political histories of Maine's Congressional delegation?
Well, like most important decisions, it was first set in motion by pure chance. It was chance, for example, that I was dispatched to the University of Arizona back in 2007 for a year's study in America, rather than any of the other universities I'd applied to. It was chance that I happened to share a class there with a then-current Vote Smart intern, and chance that she happened to give a presentation on PVS's grand democratic mission at a time when I was becoming interested in (some might say obsessed with') the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of American politics. And, while the decision to apply for a spring internship at PVS's Arizona office was my own (motivated in roughly equal parts by the wish to learn more about America's political system, a desire to contribute in some small way to the betterment of this system, and the nagging feeling that my resume could use some bulking-up), it was chance that my supervisor in Arizona went on to become PVS's internship director in Montana, and chance that she contacted me in April asking if I'd be interested in being part of PVS's summer internship program.
Ultimately, though, the fact that I jumped at the opportunity to once again enter into Vote Smart's strange parallel universe--simultaneously immersed in the day-to-day back-and-forth of American politics and apart from it, attempting to separate the facts from the spin, the vital information from the innumerable distractions, and frequently the best of politics from the worst--testifies to the existence of something unique in PVS, something that can drag a former intern back across the Atlantic to throw himself willingly into a world of seven-o'clock wake-ups, vast acres of Excel spreadsheets and occasional bear incursions. It's not just the prospect of ten weeks in the center of one of the world's most spectacular wildernesses, although that did play a role. Nor is it the company, although if being in the presence of so many bright and capable staff and interns willing to brave the aforementioned early mornings and intrusive wildlife--as well as, at the time of writing, biting cold and the first winter snow--doesn't give you hope that someone still cares about the future of the Founding Fathers' great experiment, nothing will.
In the end, it's the idea that the work you do today might help someone tomorrow, somewhere in the great wide nation beyond the Great Divide Ranch, to keep informed on an issue that's vital to them, or spur them on to learn more about an issue they'd never thought about before. That a minor sentence in an obscure speech might contain just the information someone needs when deciding how to cast his ballot. That a single line buried deep within a thousand-page bill might tip the balance for someone uncertain whether to give it her support or her opposition. Above all, it's the idea that everyone involved in Vote Smart, from the ten-year veterans to the newest interns, leaves the Project having made American democracy just that slightest bit more accessible, more attainable, and more efficient--in short, more democratic--than it was when they found it.
Tomorrow is my last day as a Vote Smart intern, and on Saturday, I fly to Washington D.C. for a week's sightseeing before I return to England. I'll probably see the Senators and Congressmen and their armies of aides coming and going up and down the steps of the Capitol, or maybe the President waving to spectators from the lawn of the White House, and the monuments and obelisks and statues dedicated to past heroes of democracy. But, at the end of the day, all the business of government is just so much paperwork and hot air, unless, outside of the narrow halls of Washington, democracy remains alive--in the woman who writes to her Congressman protesting a new tax or a fresh cut, in the man who gives his spare hours over to the service of a cause he believes in, in the millions who fight every day to make America's government and America's politics work for them, the people. And, of course, in a little ranch nestled within the Montana mountains, where a small band of citizens go to bat for democracy every morning, fuelled by copious amounts of coffee and the knowledge that they're doing something truly and honestly American.
And even a Brit can believe in that.
-Jonathan Bray (University of East Anglia, 2009, American Studies Major, from Polesworth, United Kingdom), Key Votes Intern