Project Vote Smart should be a godsend for citizens who want to learn more about candidates running for office. The nonpartisan national organization collects information on races from the White House to the statehouse, and surveys each candidate with detailed questions on important issues.
But for voters in Illinois and Iowa, Project Vote Smart is not nearly as useful as it could be because response rates from candidates continue to decline.
more than a decade, Project Vote Smart (http://www.vote-smart.org)
has surveyed presidential, congressional, gubernatorial, and
state-legislative candidates with its National Political Awareness
Test (NPAT). The survey asks candidates in-depth questions on a
variety of issues, and is also intended to demonstrate which
candidates are willing to share their views with voters.
But despite a relatively high response rate during the mid- to late 1990s, the percentage of candidates returning the questionnaire began to drop significantly during the past few elections.
And according to Project Vote Smart, the number of candidates returning the surveys in Iowa and Illinois is at an all-time low.
Out of the 199 congressional and state-legislative candidates running in Iowa this year, only nine (4.5 percent) participated in the NPAT this year - a national low. And in Illinois, out of the 289 congressional and state-legislative candidates, only 68 (23.5 percent) filled out the questionnaire.
In the race for Iowa governor, U.S. Representative Jim Nussle (a Republican) and Green Party candidate Wendy Barth filled out their NPATs, while Iowa Secretary of State Chet Culver (a Democrat) did not. In Illinois, Governor Rod Blagojevich (a Democrat) and Green Party candidate Richard Whitney completed the survey, while Illinois Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka (a Republican) did not.
In the race for Iowa's First District seat in Congress, neither Republican Mike Whalen nor Democrat Bruce Braley filled out the NPAT. In Illinois' 17th District, Democrat Phil Hare participated in the survey, while Republican Andrea Zinga did not. (See sidebar for a list of Quad Cities and statewide candidates and their participation in the NPAT.)
Project Vote Smart began surveying presidential, congressional, and gubernatorial candidates in 1992. The NPAT covers topics such as taxes, crime, and abortion, and each question includes a handful of choices for a candidate to choose from. For example, the survey's education section asks which of 13 principles the candidate supports, from teacher testing and merit pay to abstinence-only education to high-school exit exams.
In addition, a candidate isn't required to use the answers provided by the survey. Room for open responses is provided to the candidates.
The nonpartisan group has a founding board that includes many prominent figures in American politics, from former Democratic presidential candidates George McGovern and Michael Dukakis to prominent Republicans such as Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and Senator John McCain. And many of these high-profile politicians send letters to their party's candidates encouraging participation in the NPAT.
The NPAT questions have been designed to force candidates to address issues directly. "There are so many plum-sugar concoctions that candidates try and create to really avoid the issues, and we ask questions that cut right through a lot of that," said Project Vote Smart spokesperson Carolyn Holmes.
According to Project Vote Smart, NPAT participation among congressional and gubernatorial candidates peaked in1996, with 70 percent of these candidates returning the survey nationally. But the number of candidates participating in the survey has dropped, to approximately 50 percent in 2004.
Participation among state-legislative candidates across the nation peaked in 1998, with 38 percent of candidates answering Project Vote Smart's questionnaire. That rate dropped to 31 percent in 2004.
Nationwide results for 2006 won't be available until mid-October.
Project Vote Smart officials are at a loss to explain the dropping participation. "There are so few people in the country that know about Project Vote Smart," Holmes said. "We don't have an advertising budget. We rely mostly on editorials, public-service announcements, things of that nature to get Project Vote Smart out in the world."
Yet Project Vote Smart's Web site got 16 million hits a day during the 2004 election cycle, and the awareness explanation ignores higher participation rates in the past.
The River Cities' Reader attempted to contact the campaigns of major-party local candidates for Congress and Iowa and Illinois gubernatorial candidates. The campaigns of Jim Nussle, Bruce Braley, Phil Hare, and Judy Baar Topinka did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.
Representatives for Mike Whalen, Andrea Zinga, and Chet Culver gave similar reasons for not answering the questionnaire. They said that they didn't have time to respond to all the issue surveys they receive; that they focus on surveys from regional groups and media sources; and that ample information on their positions is available on their respective campaign Web sites.
Russ Perisho, campaign manager for Whalen, said, "We try to make sure Mike's message gets out in as many ways possible. Because of the large number of requests, we're only allowed to fill out a small number of questionnaires."
"We did fill out all the local-newspaper questionnaires," said Charlie Johnston, campaign spokesperson for Zinga. He offered a list of criteria that were considered in deciding which surveys to fill out: "Was it local? Was it a group where we had potential to get donations from? Are the people well-informed on what your positions are on the issues in the district that you're running in?"
Candidates who did fill out the survey said it is a good way to spread their message. "We believe a lot of people get their info from looking at the Project Vote Smart Web site," said Shelia Nix, campaign spokesperson for Rod Blagojevich. "We thought it was important to try and provide information to potential voters in Illinois."
For third-party candidates, Project Vote Smart might be the easiest way to reach voters. "Each of the debates have told us that they're not going to invite us to the debates," said Wendy Barth, the Iowa Green Party candidate for governor. "I've decided to be very open about the issues, and any survey I get, I'm answering, and I'm posting them on my Web site, so the voters know my stand on all the issues."
Even when candidates don't respond to the NPAT, the Project Vote Smart Web site remains a good source of information for voters. It includes candidates' backgrounds, voting records, public statements, interest-group rating, and campaign finances.
But while voting records can be useful in evaluating incumbents, without responses to the NPAT, the Web site doesn't have much to offer voters on candidates who haven't held public office. "If an opponent can't find out where a certain candidate stands, then how in the world is someone hiring a candidate for the job supposed to know where they stand on the issues?" Holmes asked.
Holmes said that Project Vote Smart is mulling changes in an effort to improve participation. "We're considering re-designing the survey," she said. "A lot of candidates take issue with the fact that abortion is the first issue addressed in the survey." (Topics currently appear in alphabetical order.) She also mentioned that "we're trying to get our founding board more involved in the distribution of the test and encouraging candidates to respond."
Right now, board members' signatures are included on letters to candidates. But something more personal (such as a phone call) from one of these political luminaries might be more effective.
Project Vote Smart claims that candidates who refuse to answer the survey are giving voters a critical piece of information. "Officially, we don't care whether or not a candidate responds to the NPAT," Holmes said. "We are just measuring the candidate's willingness to answer questions on the issues. What we are trying to do is give the candidates a forum to make these issue positions known. So officially we are just measuring the fact that candidates are less and less willing to provide information to the voters.
"The whole point of democracy is to have this free and open flow of unbiased information," she added, "A response that isn't an actual response is just as valuable. ‘No, I will not share my issue positions with the voters' sends a strong message."
Participation in Project Vote Smart's National Political Awareness Test
Governor Judy Baar Topinka, Republican, did not respond; Rod Blagojevich, Democrat, did respond; Richard Whitney, Green party, did respond.
U.S. House Andrea Zinga, Republican, did not respond; Phil Hare, Democrat, did respond.
State Senate District 36 Mike Jacobs, Democrat, did not respond; James Beal, Republican, did not respond.
State House District 71 Mike Boland, Democrat, did not respond; Steven Haring, Republican, did not respond.
State House District 72 Pat Verschoore, Democrat, did not respond.
Governor Chet Culver, Democrat, did not respond; Jim Nussle, Republican, did respond; Wendy Barth, Green Party, did respond; Kevin Litten, Libertarian Party, is listed as "pending" on the Project Vote Smart Web site; Mary Martin, Socialist Workers Party, is listed as "pending."
U.S. House Mike Whalen, Republican, did not respond; Bruce Braley, Democrat, did not respond; James F. Hill, Pirate Party, did respond; Albert W. Schoeman, nominated by petition, is listed as "pending."
State Senate District 41 David Hartsuch, Republican, did not respond; Phyllis Thede, Democrat, is listed as "pending."
State Senate District 43 Joe Seng, Democrat, did not respond.
State House District 81 Lauren Phelps, Democrat, did not respond; James Van Fossen, Republican, did not respond.
State House District 82 Linda Miller, Republican, did not respond; Joe Hutter, nominated by petition, did respond.
State House District 83 Steven Olson, Republican, did not respond; Reg Kauffman, Democrat, did not respond.
State House District 84 Jim Van Fossen, Republican, did not respond; Elesha Gayman, Democrat, did not respond.
State House District 85 jim Lykam, Democrat, did not respond; Roby Smith, Republican, did not respond.
State House District 86 Cindy Winckler, Democrat, did not respond; Susie Bell, Republican, did respond.