Nothing to Fear From Full Disclosure

December 4, 2005

Andrea Neal column for Sept. 28 and thereafter
750 words

INDIANAPOLIS – What possible reason could a politician give for refusing to answer a questionnaire? During more than a decade of examining candidate records, the folks at Project Vote Smart have heard it all.

When it comes to making excuses, candidates this election year are no different than in the past. Many want nothing to do with Project Vote Smart’s National Political Awareness Test.

What are they so afraid of?

Project Vote Smart is a national, not-for-profit organization that exists solely to help voters become informed. During election years, it sends out a survey — nicknamed the NPAT –- to see which candidates are willing to go on the record with positions on a range of key issues. The organization makes the results available on the Internet (www.vote-smart.org) and by telephone (1-888-VOTE-SMART). The project also posts voting records, speeches and campaign finance data to provide as full a picture as possible of a candidate’s credentials.

Here’s the good news for Indiana voters: In contrast with years past, a higher percentage of candidates are answering the survey.

This year, 71 percent of congressional candidates completed the NPAT, up from 66 percent in 2002. On the state legislative level, 45 percent of candidates have filled out the questionnaire, compared to 35 percent two years ago.

Unfortunately, the ticket headers are among those refusing to take part. Both Democratic Gov. Joe Kernan and Republican Mitch Daniels have declined to return the survey, as has Sen. Evan Bayh.

Ellen Whitt, deputy campaign manager for Daniels, says the campaign has filled out many Hoosier organization surveys, but doesn’t like the NPAT format. "The Project Vote Smart questionnaire doesn’t really provide an opportunity to explain positions further."

Kernan spokeswoman Tina Noel gives a similar answer. "There are important issues facing us, and they require some more thought than a simple yes or no."

As a general rule, Bayh follows a "no survey policy," says his press secretary, Meg Keck. Although Bayh did complete the NPAT in 1998, his opponent misrepresented material from the survey, Keck says. Bayh believes the best way to learn his position on the issues is to look up his voting record at www.senate.gov

Points well taken? Not exactly.

There is no web site in the country that can rival Project Vote Smart in the quantity and quality of information about candidates, available at the click of a mouse.

Call up the U.S. Senate web site and just try to quickly find a roll call vote. I spent more than 10 minutes looking for Bayh’s 2003 vote on S 3, the so-called partial-birth abortion ban. The Project Vote Smart web site organizes votes by subject matter so I found it there in mere seconds.

Most voters don’t have time to call up the voting records of every incumbent on the ballot. In an age when more voters get their information from TV commercials than from voting records, we should welcome any neutral organization willing to compile this data in an easy-to-understand format.

Further, the NPAT is not a yes-or-no survey. It gives candidates a range of nuanced responses on carefully structured questions, as well as the option of not answering at all if their view is not accurately reflected on a given question.

The Democratic and Republican parties advise candidates not to answer the NPAT. They fear that a national database of politicians’ positions will make it harder for them to spin campaign messages to their advantage.

That’s too bad. Voters deserve a place to go for non-biased information about politicians. Project Vote Smart, founded in 1992 by folks as politically diverse as Newt Gingrich and George McGovern, is just such a place. It takes no money from lobbyists, government, business or special interests. It does not lobby for any issue or candidate. It requires all staff and interns to take a pledge of impartiality.

If you plan to vote on Nov. 2, take a gander at www.vote-smart.org and see if it helps you judge the credentials of the men and women on the ballot. If it does, write to Kernan, Daniels and Bayh and let them know you want to see their answers to the NPAT.

It is we the people, not the politicians, who should control the flow of information at election time.

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