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July Common Ground E-Newsletter

13 July 2012

Independence Day on the Great Divide Ranch

This 4th of July, interns and staff joined in the fun at our annual BBQ. We started the day with a scavenger hunt, where participants had to walk, run and row to find clues hidden all over the ranch. This was swiftly followed by a water balloon toss, before we were all treated to a delicious feast prepared by our Lodge Manager and part-time chef, Rachel. We all enjoyed the festivities and the weather stayed warm and sunny throughout.

For more information on our National Internship Program, click here

Keeping Up with Congress

By Julia Michaels 
Legislative Research Director 

Quick question: how often do you sit down to read through a piece of legislation? If you're like most people, the answer is probably: not very often. State legislatures and Congress act every day to address important issues through public policy. Vast quantities of bills are making their way through the legislative process that may have a significant impact on your community or your own daily life. Have you ever wondered what lawmakers are doing to address texting while driving, for example, or the concealed carry of firearms? What about pollution, abortion, health care, or the budget? The average American doesn't have the time or patience to wade through hundreds of pages of legalese, and even experienced readers can get bogged down. So if you want to know what your government is doing, who should you turn to? Project Vote Smart's legislation page, of course! 

The Legislative Research Department is responsible for providing voting records for public officials, and summaries of important bills from all 50 state legislatures and Congress. As you might imagine, this is an immense task: our staff and interns monitor the media in all states, enter lawmakers' votes on key pieces of legislation, read through each bill in its entirety, and write up an original summary of each bill. Finally, all of our work is reviewed and approved by Project Vote Smart's advisors, who are prominent political scientists or journalists with extensive knowledge of state or national politics. 

To find out what your elected officials have been doing, go to the Government and Officials tab on our homepage, then select "Legislation". The list of bills defaults to national (congressional) legislation, with the option to select your state from the drop-down menu. You can also select a particular issue, such as the environment or gambling, which will allow you to view all bills categorized under that issue. 

Let's say you're interested in the farm bill that recently passed the U.S. Senate. In the Issues menu, select “Agriculture", then S 3240 (Agriculture Reform, Food, and Jobs Act of 2012. At the top of the page you will find the stages: a complete history of the bill from introduction to signature by the president. In this case, the bill hasn't gone far, as it was just passed by the Senate. Next is the amily if there are any amendments to this bill that were also selected as key votes,they will be listed here; click the links to view the voting records and summaries for each amendment. Further down are the issue categories. In this case, not only Agriculture but also Budget, Spending and Taxes is listed as a category. 

Following this information is a complete summary of the bill, which is divided into two parts: the Project Vote Smart Synopsis, which explains the primary purpose of the bill in one clear, succinct sentence, and the Highlights, which are the most relevant provisions. In all cases we do our best to translate the bill text into plain language that the average person can understand. But if you don't like our summary, you can read the original text of the bill by clicking on the “Full Bill Text" link. Finally, click on “See the Voting Record" to see how your senators voted. Sponsors (or authors) of the bill are listed at the very bottom of the page these are the lawmakers who originally proposed the legislation. 

Obviously we can't cover every bill in every state, so we use the following criteria to select bills for inclusion as key votes on our website:
  1. The vote should be helpful in portraying how a member stands on a particular issue

  2. The vote should be clear for any person to understand

  3. The vote has received media attention

  4. The vote was passed or defeated by a very close margin

  5. Occasionally, if a specific bill is consistently inquired about on the Voter's Research Hotline, the vote will be added

Recent Key Votes: 

From Congress, a bill that extends student loan rates for undergraduates

From Congress, Rep. Paul Ryan's proposed budget 

From New Hampshire, a bill that prohibits abortions after 20 weeks 

From Missouri, a bill that requires presidential candidates to provide proof of citizenship  

VoteEasy: What about the other candidates?

Interns and Staff at Project Vote Smart are working hard to research issue positions of congressional candidates that choose not to respond to the Political Courage Test. Our researchers have a daunting task addressing the thousands of candidates that qualify for the general election, as each candidate's researched issue positions must go through several rounds of checks prior to being uploaded to VoteEasy. Our staff and interns take painstaking care to ensure accuracy. While the feedback from the public and media is almost unanimously positive, when users of our website utilize VoteEasy one of the more common questions that we receive is: This is great for the candidates that are on VoteEasy, but what about my candidates for other offices?

VoteEasy researchers dealt with around 1,400 Congressional candidates in 2010, and we expect to research about the same number here in 2012. Committing to research for State Legislatures would require resources that we don't yet have. For example, New Hampshire's large state legislature (424 members and almost 900 candidates) means that we would be researching almost the same amount of candidates for that state alone!

Staff and Interns at Project Vote Smart would love to add to the effectiveness of VoteEasy by adding more candidates, and with unlimited resources it would be one of the first things the organization does. Currently, we are inputting congressional candidate information into VoteEasy - so stay tuned for later this summer when we release the tool state-by-state.

"Make your voice heard"

 Not only do we provide the facts on what your candidates and elected officials are doing and saying, but we also provide you with the information you need to get in touch with them.

Look no further than for the contact information of your elected officials or candidates in your district this election season. Also, with social media, no longer are you forced to rely on the telephone or postal service as the sole means of having your voice heard. Voters can contact candidates and officials through a whole host of different mediums, and we've got all of them in one place.

Want to tweet a question at a candidate, post a question on their wall, or comment on a recent campaign video? We are constantly adding candidate FacebookTwitter, and YouTube account information into our database so that constituents may have every mode of communication at their disposal. And of course, we still have mailing addresses, phone numbers, fax numbers, and email addresses. It is ultimately up to you, the voter, to make sure your voice is heard this election cycle, but we've done most of the hard work for you! Enter your zip code or mailing address at, find your candidates and officials, click on a name, and find their contact information. It's that easy!

Related tags: blog, e-newsletter, key-votes, social-media, vote-easy,

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