Know your candidate? Check out 'Vote Smart' for answers

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   Do you know where your candidate stands on abortion? State tax reform? How about environmental issues such as clean drinking water or toxic waste?
   Or does your candidate take a stand at all?
   One way to find out is through Project Vote Smart -- a non-partisan group determined to give voters a source of information about candidates running for national or state offices.
   "We're mostly 20-year-olds and above working to save democracy," said Aaron Brock, news director of Project Vote Smart.
   A former journalist who joined Project Vote Smart in May, Brock said Project Vote Smart researches 13,000 candidates running for state legislatures to President.
   Research covers five basic areas -- backgrounds, issue positions, voting records, campaign finances, and performance evaluations made by over 100 liberal to conservative special interest groups. The organization maintains a national library of factual information for more than 42,000 candidates for public office, said Brock.
   Congressional races for the U.S. House and Senate include issue positions on national abortion, gun control, the federal budget and national security issues.
   Gubernatorial and state legislative candidate assessments are tailored to reflect hot-button issues such as tax reform, capital punishment, and health care issues.
   "There is a blanket for all congressional candidates. The gubernatorial candidates get state-specific tests," said Brock.
   Vote Smart interviews every candidate for President, U.S. Senate, U.S. House of Representatives, all 50 gubernatorial seats, and every state legislative seat in the country through its National Political Awareness Test (NPAT).
   Researchers compile candidates of all parties from secretaries of state Web sites and offices of all 50 states. Then Vote Smart mails assessment tests to qualifying candidates at their campaign headquarters or their addresses listed with the secretaries of state. Staffers follow up with the candidates to determine if they have received the NPAT, Brock said.
   Tennessee candidates of local interest who took the National Political Awareness Test (NPAT) include Republican gubernatorial nominee Van Hilleary, Republican. Democratic nominee Phil Bredesen had not submitted an NPAT to Vote Smart as of Monday.
   Candidates running for state senate in District 3 -- Republican nominee Dewey "Rusty" Crowe, Democratic nominee Richard Dale Gabriel, and Independent candidate Charles D. Mattioli -- submitted NPATs available for viewing at Vote Smart.
   In the state House, District 4 race, neither Republican nominee Jerome Cochran nor write-in candidate William Ralph Cole turned in a Vote Smart political assessment test.
   Tennessee's U.S. Senate candidates Lamar Alexander or Robert "Bob" Clement did not submit a political awareness test with Vote Smart either.
   Brock said Project Vote Smart was started conceptually in the late 1980s and really got off the ground in the 1990s. The first NPAT were administered and posted in 1992.
   Vote Smart counts among its founding board members political luminaries such as late Sen. Barry Goldwater and Geraldine Ferraro as well as ex-presidents Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter.
   "It was really started as a test if factual, unbiased information about political candidates was compiled, would the voters notice," said Brock.
   The short answer has apparently been, yes.
   "During the 2000 presidential election on our Web site, we were averaging 3 million hits per day," said Brock.
   However, Brock estimated only 10 percent of the general public know of Vote Smart and the organization's mission.
   He added the organization had seen a significant drop in numbers of candidates submitting NPAT forms in recent months -- partly because political advisors are telling candidates not to fill the test.
   "It's for two reasons," said Brock. "One, they tell them it will dilute their media message. Second, if they fill out the test it opens them up to background research by their opponents.
   "It is tough to let voters know how you are going to handle issues if you can't let your opponent know."
   Brock said Vote Smart researchers had begun compiling NPAT data for the 2004 presidential election.
   Roughly 20 full-time staff members and "a lot of volunteers and interns" work compiling data, said Brock. Headquartered outside Missoula, Montana, world class fly-fishing and the pristine beauty of Big Sky country draws volunteers and interns to spend 10 weeks or two years, he said.
   The organization also enjoys staying far away from the political cauldron of Washington to preserve nonpartisanship.
   "It is to our advantage to be as far away from Washington as possible," said Brock. "What we do relies on our reputation as a nonpartisan organization."
   Citizens can find issue positions for the candidates in the Tennessee gubernatorial race, U.S. Senate race and other state legislative races at the Vote Smart Web site or by calling 1-888-868-3762.
   To view the candidates' position on issues ranging from abortion to tax reform on the Web, go to: www.vote-smart.org.