High in the mountains just outside of Philipsburg lies a ranch blanketed for much of the winter beneath two or three feet of snow. A handful of buildings dots the landscape—a rustic lodge bookended by two bunkhouses, a log cabin office made from a converted equipment shed and “the big house,” a large A-frame built over an old log cabin home. A frozen lake, a scattering of firs and a backdrop of mountains complete the picture.
Gathered in this beautiful place is a group of people with a big mission. The sign in the office says it all:
“Quiet, please! Democracy is being reborn.”
The Great Divide Ranch is the relatively new home of Project Vote Smart. This amazing organization has taken up a tremendous, yet necessary task: providing accurate, unbiased, nonpartisan information about politicians and the stances they actually take.
Earlier this year I was among a group of journalists and others invited to the ranch to brainstorm ways to focus its mission and increase participation by candidates, many of whom are being advised by their political consultants and parties not to answer the project’s questionnaire.
I’ve been familiar with the project since it started its toll-free hotline—(888) VOTE-SMART—back in 1992. Then it just did congressional and presidential candidates. Since then, it has expanded to the Web (www.vote-smart.org) and covers gubernatorial and state legislative candidates as well: a total of 12,000 in all.
The meticulously nonpartisan nature of the organization has always intrigued me. Its Founding Board includes such diverse political figures as Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Jim Leach, Geraldine Ferraro, Newt Gingrich, Michael Dukakis, Mark Hatfield and George McGovern.
Everything the project does is carefully vetted to ensure complete impartiality. Politicians, political scientists and members of the press work with the project to carefully comb the questions, votes and descriptions to guarantee that they are fair, complete and impartial.
Project Vote Smart wants to be the credible source for political information. It wants to be a place voters can go to cut through misleading campaign commercials, overblown rhetoric and the distortions of special interest groups.
The core part of this information is what the project calls the National Political Awareness Test, or the N-PAT. This fairly lengthy questionnaire is sent to every candidate running for an office covered by Project Vote Smart.
The candidates are mailed reminders about the deadline for returning the questionnaire, and staff members also make phone calls to ensure that the questionnaire has been received and the candidate knows the deadline for returning it. All of these contacts are meticulously documented.
Project Vote Smart President Richard Kimble, a former political candidate himself, told us that the answers to the questions don’t matter as much as the willingness, or lack thereof, of candidates to answer them and to clearly tell voters where they stand on the issues.
The project has worked hard to eliminate any reasonable objections a politician might raise. The responses cover the political spectrum from Libertarian to Green. If a candidate can’t find a response that fits his or her position, a space is available to briefly describe a more fitting position (or expand on an existing response).
The N-PATs are tailored to each state with help from local political scientists and media. That blunts the criticism that Project Vote Smart doesn’t understand local concerns.
The office of Rep. Nick Rahall (D–W.V.) once told me that he hadn’t filled out the questionnaire because it didn’t have a “connection to West Virginia.” Funny, but Rahall doesn’t worry about connections to West Virginia (my home state) when he accepts political contributions. Seventy-seven percent of the money he raised in the last election came from out of state.
Candidates rightly fear that opponents will use the questionnaire against them. Project Vote Smart does its best to discourage that, especially if a candidate’s answers are distorted. Officially, the project prohibits the use of its name or questionnaire in political advertising. Legally, of course, there’s little the project can do to stop candidates from doing this.
When a candidate does misuse an opponent’s answers, Project Vote Smart officials do what they can to blunt the impact.
For instance, when Jim Humphreys ran a misleading attack ad against Shelley Moore Capito during their 2000 congressional race in West Virginia, the project sent out a press release that said Humphreys “has used Project Vote Smart’s reputation to give credibility to an unethical and intentionally misleading attack...”
Project Vote Smart has set itself up for a daunting task. It accomplishes the monumental data entry, fact gathering and checking and candidate contacts with an ever-changing group of young interns and low-paid staff. The fantastic Montana ranch serves as a lure, as does the chance to do something so vital to democracy. In this age of slick campaign commercials, twisted ads by special interest groups and slick political consultants who package candidates like so much toilet paper, Project Vote Smart’s goal is vital to democracy.
I urge you to find out if your elected representatives have filled out the N-PAT. If they haven’t, you should ask them why.