TOWARD the end of his life, James Madison wrote to a friend: "A people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives."
A band of idealists at Oregon State University is trying to make this happen in Election '92. They are part of "Project Vote Smart," run by the recently formed Center for National Independence in Politics - whose aim is to give voters as much factual information as possible about every candidate running in the general elections for federal office.
Call a toll-free number and trained volunteers will give you candidate biographies, voting records, sources of campaign financing, issue positions based on questionnaires and interviews, and performance evaluations done by more than 60 organizations from all sides of the political spectrum. `Self-defense' voting
For a $3 fee and a toll call, you can get a printout of this information plus a copy of "The Voter's Self-Defense Manual."
The fundamental idea, says the center's board president, Richard Kimball, is that politicians "are nothing more than the hired help; we're forcing them - with or without their cooperation - to fill out a job application."
Mr. Kimball, a former state legislator and congressional aide from Arizona, has also taught high school and community college civics classes.
The center is scrupulously bipartisan. Honorary co-founders are former presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. Among the other founders are Barry Goldwater and George McGovern, Ronald Dellums and Rep. Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia. Kimball says, half-joking, that "nobody can come on the board unless they bring a political enemy with them."
Although about 20,000 individuals have paid $35 to join the center so far, the work is largely foundation-funded. No money is accepted from any organization that deals with government at any level - including corporations, unions, or advocacy groups.
"When I come to work, I check my biases at the door," says Alexandra Engs, a young lawyer who has taken time off to run the candidate questionnaire part of the operation. "We are just here to collect the facts, we're not here to advocate issues or positions."
The heart of the effort is the database on candidates, taken from such sources as Congressional Quarterly and the reports of the Federal Elections Commission. The database grows every day. No one is excluded: 74 political parties are represented.
There is more information available on incumbents than challengers (often to the incumbent's discomfort). But that is changing as more candidates respond to the "national political awareness tests" put together by center staff and political experts. A balanced review
Careful screening is conducted by political scientists both liberal and conservative. The questionnaires include multiple-choice and true-or-false items covering 17 issue-areas and also include limited space for candidates to write about topics they believe to be most important.
So far, about half of all congressional candidates have responded, and it is expected that at least 80 percent will do so as the election nears. Neither the Bush nor Clinton campaigns have returned completed questionnaires yet, preferring instead to send packets of position papers. Guarding the data
The organization is very protective of its information database and also about the number and type of callers to the "Voter's Research Hotline." "It is absolutely essential that this information not be manipulated in any way," says Adelaide Elm, director of the hotline, who adds that "we've had thousands and thousands and thousands of phone calls in the three months we've been operational."
Handling the calls are nearly 200 volunteers from the Corvallis, Ore., area, including many student interns from Oregon State University who get college credit for taking part.
While it is a relatively new effort, Project Vote Smart is gathering expert endorsement.
"They are the straightest group around," says Ellen Miller, director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington, D.C.-based research organization. "They have a very, very good reputation for just the facts."
Peggy Lampl, former national director of the League of Women Voters, says, "If citizens support this effort, candidates will have no place to hide when it comes to issues and voting records."
Political reporter and columnist David Broder helped put together another effort by the center. This is "The Reporter's Source Book," a 200-page reference guide to sources and experts on politics and key issues. It is principally designed for journalists from smaller news organizations covering local campaigns but without the resources of larger organizations.
When the project got a test run in North Carolina and Nebraska two years ago, the response was much greater than anticipated. Some 8,000 callers joined the organization. Teachers started promoting it in their classrooms, and high school students began requesting information for assignments. The organization now is working with Oregon State University and Rutgers University to design curricula materials. A video on politics is being prepared featuring actor Edward James Olmos (who played the teacher in th e film "Stand and Deliver").
Richard Kimball says two trends have developed that lead to political ignorance. Candidates have learned to use polls, surveys, and high-tech media (principally television) to create an image of themselves and manipulate voter attitudes. And traditionally stable institutions that once helped educate voters - communities, churches, schools, local newspapers - become less stable as American society becomes more mobile.
"Those two dramatic shifts have come together to freeze people from the single most important requirement to self-govern, and that's the access to information," he says. Vote Smart, he adds, means to provide the kind of "power which knowledge gives," echoing James Madison's call of more than 150 years ago.
(Project Vote Smart's toll-free telephone number is 1-800-786-6885.)