Project Vote Smart Keeps Focus on Political Issues

Oregon group's toll-free number was in great demand during the presidential campaign. Project now offers `voter research hotline.'

ONE of the clearest messages of the 1992 campaign was that voters are strongly interested in issues and in seeing that politicians keep their promises. With Jan. 20's inauguration of a new president - who will work with a Congress that has an unusual number of new members - that remains just as true after the election.

This is the working premise of "Project Vote Smart," run by the nonpartisan Center for National Independence in Politics. Based in Corvallis, Ore., the project provided candidate information to nearly 2 million voters, news reporters, and public-school pupils during the presidential campaign. Much of that came through the project's toll-free "voter research hotline" operated out of spare basement offices at Oregon State University.

Building on that success, the organization is now offering free, continually updated information on individual voting records, the fate of key bills as they pass through the legislative process, and campaign financing. The project is also preparing for the 1994 elections.

"Tons of people are calling wanting to know if we're still open," said Adelaide Elm, the hotline's director. "We're getting about 50 calls a day - and that's with no publicity at all."

Those who follow United States politics favor such efforts at continuing voter education. "They have clearly tapped into a vein of public desire for more information on who the candidates are and what they stand for," says Ellen Miller, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Responsive Politics. Political reporter David Broder says "[the project is] out to improve the workings of our democracy."

As Richard Kimball, director of the Center for National Independence in Politics, sees it, this amounts to nothing more than the bosses keeping an eye on the hired help. "In doing this, we hope to help create a citizen-controlled system that allows each of us to evaluate the candidates based on our own unique concerns, and then track their performances once we have hired them for the job," says Mr. Kimball, a one-time US Senate candidate from Arizona.

This may sound like the gospel according to Ross Perot, but the center scrupulously avoids the perception of being partisan. It accepts no funding from political-action committees or special-interest groups. Its founders cut across the political spectrum - from Rep. Ron Dellums (D) of California to Rep. Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia, from former presidential candidate Barry Goldwater (R) to another former presidential candidate, Democrat George McGovern. Its "national political-awareness test" on issues s ent to incumbents and challengers is put together by political scientists from differing viewpoints.

INITIATED on a national scale last March (after five years of planning and testing in local elections), the project includes: a resource center and source book for journalists tracking issues and candidates; "The Voter's Self-Defense Manual," a pamphlet for the public costing $2.50 that includes biographical information, sources of campaign financing, and the special-interest ratings of elected officials; and a student/teacher guide and instructional video on electoral politics.

The main project activity has been the "voter research hotline," which drew 209,000 callers during the 1992 campaign and 34,000 on election day alone. Some 300 volunteers and interns (most from Oregon State University) fielded calls in a 24-hour effort that put the organization far over budget for its toll-free 800 phone number.

For the 1994 election, project leaders hope to track national, state, and local races. Fax and modem access to the project database is now being explored.

"Citizens will be able to learn what their representatives are doing for them or to them," said Claire Scheuren, special-projects director of Project Vote Smart. "Citizens ... will be waiting and watching for follow through on campaign commitments."

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