Friday, March 13, 2015

Saving Project Vote Smart and improving it or replacing it

Project Vote Smart has been asking candidates to answer "National Political Awareness Tests" for well over fifteen years, which enables voters to compare candidates on a less biased basis than what the traditional media provides and I have been recommending them for quite a while now, and I continue to do so. However, there apparently have been some problems which should be fixed. On of the leading problems that I have noticed is that the quality of their questionnaires have, if anything, deteriorated over the years.

They used to be much longer. Ideally members of the public would be as involved in deciding what questions are asked as possible. It might be a good idea to have more autonomous organizations nation wide that affiliate with Project Vote Smart. This way local citizens could arrange to ask their own questions. This could actually be done without Project Vote Smart if they pressure local candidates to answer them but it would almost certainly be better with a national organization that was accountable to the public.

Also according to several articles over the years Project Vote Smart might be controlled at the top, rather than at the grass roots level. Apparently their leader, Richard Kimball, has demonstrated some common characteristics of many politicians; and there seem to be a fair number of people that think he should step aside. This might be a good idea and perhaps either it should be reformed or replaced with other organizations controlled at the grass roots level. Whether it is reformed or replaced it is very helpful to enable voters to ask their candidates questions and find out more about their political records so that we can base decisions on facts not deceptive ads, paid for campaign contributions, that have no credibility.

Right now many people accept the propaganda that is provided by the commercial media and they can effectively rig elections be simply refusing to give grass roots candidates any coverage and that is exactly what they've been doing for decades, if not centuries.

In 1986 Richard Kimball was off to a good start when he said:

"Understand what we do to you. We spend all of our time raising money, often from strangers we do not even know. Then we spend it in three specific ways: First we measure you, what it is you want to purchase in the political marketplace — just like Campbell's soup or Kellogg's cereal. Next, we hire some consultants who know how to tailor our image to fit what we sell. Lastly, we bombard you with the meaningless, issueless, emotional nonsense that is always the result. And whichever one of us does that best will win." Wikipedia: Project Vote Smart

John McCain won that election for Arizona Senate that year. My best guess is that his constituency was responsive to that argument at that time; or at least some of them. And, perhaps, that might be why, for a while John McCain supported some kind of election reform and seemed like a very good candidate in 2000 when he had his so-called "straight talk express tour." It didn't take long after that loss for him to realize that he had to go along with the program to get the support of the political establishment and eventually the 2008 nomination.

Richard Kimball actually did a much better job trying to reform the system with his development of Project Vote Smart, at least for a little while. Unfortunately they've had their problems including some that appeared in this article from 2007 where he seems to have cashed in, and it may have happened as the quality of the questionnaires was deteriorating:

Raising Richard: Breaking the pay scale at Project Vote Smart By Pat Duganz

Would you like a $400,000 bonus because you’ve made only about $25,000 annually for a few years, or maybe because you want to buy a house in Tucson, Ariz.? Then being president of the Philipsburg-based non-partisan, non-profit voter information center Project Vote Smart is the perfect job for you.

For fiscal year April 2005 to March 2006, Project Vote Smart President Richard Kimball was given a $400,000 bonus, and a raise in salary to the tune of 300 percent. His full 2005-2006 fiscal year compensation, according to Vote Smart tax filings, was $471,994 ––nearly one third of the group’s overall operating budget.

Why did Kimball have such a robust 2006? The answer is complicated.

First, there’s the reason given at the end of Vote Smart’s 990 tax form for the fiscal year ending in 2006: “This bonus was paid to compensate Richard Kimball for being the key employee and leading the organization for more than 10 years at a very low average salary between $25,000 and $35,000…His new salary is $114,314 per year,” the document says.

But that’s not the only answer.

Partisan Free Politics, a blog run by former Vote Smart employee Andrew MacRae, featured Kimball’s bonus in a post in late June. The post caused a furor among Vote Smart alum who were shocked not only that Kimball was given such a hefty bonus, but also that the filing listed him as working 40 hours per week. One commentator noted, “[He] definitely worked 40 hours a week, PVS could never function without him playing all those important tennis matches…”

In response to such barbs, Vote Smart national director Lisa Coligan posted a response on the blog’s comment section: “Mr. Kimball received no compensation for his first 5 years of work with the Project. During that time, he also sold his home and his retirement funds and donated them to the Project…Two years ago [2005], the Project’s Board awarded Mr. Kimball a one-time bonus so that he could qualify for a housing loan…His years of no salary and minimal salary made it impossible for him to qualify for a loan… Mr. Kimball currently has a board-approved salary of approximately $85,000 dollars a year,” Coligan wrote. Complete article

Unfortunately I was unable to find the original article. I did find User:Andrew MacRae at Source Watch who was cited in the article but his visible activities on the Web seem to have come to a halt in 2007. Having the help of people like Richard Kimball or Andrew MacRae to get things started can go a long way; but, for all practical purposes, to keep it going we need a system of volunteers or active citizens, perhaps including some paid ones that replace people when they leave.

Unfortunately their problems escalated last year and there might be some doubt about how long they will last according to the following article:

Project Vote Smart lays off 6, considers closing 03/22/2014

Six employees were laid off without notice in the past week at Project Vote Smart, a nonprofit political research organization based out of a 50-acre ranch near Philipsburg.

A seventh employee resigned in protest over what she described as the “despicable” manner in which the layoffs were conducted by the organization’s founding president, Richard Kimball.

Adelaide Elm, a founding member of the organization’s executive board and Kimball’s wife, declined to comment on the layoffs but confirmed that the board is discussing the possibility of selling the property and closing the Philipsburg operation, which until the layoffs employed about 20 full-time staff members and housed various interns.

“The board is considering the idea,” she said. “What we’ve learned over these many years is that it is very expensive to operate a national research center on a 50-acre ranch in the middle of the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness area.”

Founded in 1992 by Kimball, Project Vote Smart is a 501(c)(3) nonpartisan research group that collects and distributes information on candidates for public office all over the country, from would-be state legislators all the way up to president of the United States.

Staff members and interns compile data on the candidates’ background, their position on important issues, voting records, campaign finance reports, public statements and their ties to special interest groups. Every year, they publish a guide on their website and in a print publication. ....

Elm said the organization operated on a budget of $1.2 million during the last election season.

“We are really cutting it down,” she said. “We are cutting back on horses and we put in a wood boiler to replace the propane. We are economizing where we can. Wherever we are, we will track the public statements, backgrounds and voting records from state representatives to the president of the United States. Complete article

"cutting back on horses" Why are they even spending money on horses in the first place?

This seems to be part of their recruiting practices. They don't seem to pay much except to Richard Kimball, after his big raise in 2007; but they do seem to have a devoted low paid community that is almost certainly interested in improving things. I'm not against reasonable compensation and I suspect that the people that worked for them in the past have some good things to contribute; however it seems to me that they should be trying to get their job done in the most effective way possible.

A lot of this could probably be done by part time volunteers around the country working out of their home. As others have indicated they should also be more open about their decisions and expenses.

According to some of the input from former interns posted on Glass Door: Project Vote Smart Reviews from workers they could almost certainly improve things if they listened more to their workers and there is growing doubt about whether or not Richard Kimball deserves his pay. It will be much more difficult to ask for donations if they don't address legitimate problems.

Deciding what questions should be asked could be done better if they tried to get some input from workers and voters as well as others who might have some input. One question that I think should be asked is if potential candidates for office would vote for their party leaders like John Boehner, Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnell or Harry Reid; or for state offices the leaders that are in place in any given state. I personally believe that they should replace their leaders on a regular basis and when candidates run for reelection they should let the voters know if they agree or if they would reelect leaders that might be doing a bad job.

Reviewing some of the questions that were asked in the past would also be helpful. Unfortunately I haven't been able to find all the archives relatively easy, although they might be readily available. But I did find a few below that might be used for comparison, including some that were archived by On The Issues, but I wasn't able to find on Project Vote Smart. These should probably be better organized and easy to find old ones. The internet has the ability to save an enormous amount of useless information; it seems to me that a simple way could be set up to archive these.

The questionnaires seem to be getting shorter. This isn't the only criteria or necessarily the most important one but it is worth consideration. They spend an enormous amount of time on deceptive propaganda; it seems to me that candidates should be able to spend a modest amount of time answering questions from voters once the details get worked out. And even if there are more revisions what they have now should be considered a minimum. Even Elizabeth Warren, who is portrayed as a consumer advocate refuses to answer questions. this is a clear indication that her consumer advocacy is almost certainly a result her propaganda, not real advocacy for consumers, as I have said before.

A reformed Project Vote Smart or a replacement that is controlled at the grass roots level by citizens, not top heavy boards that can be corrupted by corporations can go a long way to helping badly needed Election Reform which could enable voters to hear more about grass roots candidates and issues that matter. this could lead to candidates that actually keep their promises when they get into office.

If that happens then we might actually have a democracy not a corporate plutocracy disguised as democracy where corporations decide who we can vote for and they're more accountable to these corporations than they are to voters, which is what we have now.

Just because Project Vote Smart might have some problems of their own doesn't mean that candidates should refuse to answer questions and those that do shouldn't get votes from concerned voters.

Election 2000 National Political Awareness Test, by Project Vote Smart at On The Issues

Paul Hodes' Issue Positions (Political Courage Test) 2010/2004

Elizabeth Warren's Issue Positions (Political Courage Test) 2012

Jill Stein's Issue Positions (Political Courage Test) 2012

This will be followed up by reposts about election reform and will probably be updated within a couple weeks afterwards.

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