An indispensable political resource
Want to know the single most unbiased, comprehensive, user-friendly website for information on public officials at both the federal and state level?
Look it up. I learned about it at a conference a couple of weekends ago.
And its national headquarters are now on the Drake University campus.
The website investigates and records hundreds of thousands of details on thousands of politicians: biographies, issue positions, ratings and endorsements, voting records, speeches and interviews, and financial supporters, going back where relevant and available to 1992.
You may want to check out your own state and federal representatives. (I did, and it was fascinating.) You may want to do opposition research on the candidate you want to get rid of. Conservative or liberal, it doesn’t matter. The Vote Smart project doesn’t shade to the right or the left; its enormous data collection hews to a rigidly neutral, fact-based orientation.
Vote Smart until recently was located in the Montana wilderness, near a very small town, precisely because it wanted to offer isolation for young volunteers to dedicate themselves for a few weeks of unbroken research stints to flesh out its website archive. It attracted hundreds of those volunteers, and the results are encyclopedic.
But because the group’s founder knew someone who knew someone, and because the organization thought Iowa’s unique place in American politics warranted a look, Vote Smart is now a valued component of Drake University’s political science complex, where volunteers continue their work.
Vote Smart goes to impressive lengths to retain its political neutrality. It refuses financial assistance from all organizations and special interest groups that lobby or support or oppose any candidate or issue.
No one can join Vote Smart’s board unless accompanied by a political opposite.
Its board has included former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, former Senators Barry Goldwater and George McGovern, former governor and presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, former congresswoman and vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro and Sen. John McCain.
Of the 5,000 people, young and old, who have volunteered to work at Vote Smart, 90 percent have received no pay, and those who do receive compensation are paid at a minimal level, just enough to cover basic living expenses.
If a candidate refuses to state his or her positions on key issues — Vote Smart’s “political courage” test — the candidate receives a rating of “failed” in that area.
Candidates, including incumbents, are sometimes fearful of revealing where they stand, or because their party’s leaders tell them to remain silent. Vote Smart thinks voters ought to know about a candidate’s cowardice.
But a candidate’s issue positions are easily discoverable by going to the website’s ratings, endorsements and voting records sections.
The website is free. All information is accessible simply by clicking on the desired icon.
And Vote Smart offers a number of other valuable services. VoteEasy lets you see instantly which candidates are most like you. You can order the Voter’s Self-Defense Manual, a 100-page report on your state’s congressional delegation.
For every state you can find out voter registration policies and procedures, locate voter registration forms, where to send them, where you can register in person and where your polling place is.
You can find complete descriptions of ballot measures for every state, including complete texts, sponsors and election results.
Vote Smart is funded entirely by donations, and the website lets users know how they can help. But it devotedly guards the privacy of its donors, and doesn’t sell donor lists to anyone.
National media and good-government organizations line up to praise Vote Smart. In the words of U.S. News & World Report, Vote Smart “would make the Founders weep with joy.”
It’s well worth a look, and that look probably won’t be your last one.