Twenty Lashes for Kernan, Daniels and Miller

December 4, 2005

Andrea Neal column for April 27 and thereafter
735 words

(Editors: Please note graf 8 and revise with newspaper-specific information if appropriate. Neal will update the NPAT response figures in occasional columns between now and Nov. 2).

INDIANAPOLIS — Twenty lashes with a rain-soaked yard sign for Joe Kernan, Mitch Daniels and Eric Miller. All three failed to complete the National Political Awareness Test, one of the finest tools there is for gauging a candidate’s accessibility to voters.

Come on, gentlemen, don’t you want fellow Hoosiers to know as much as possible about you before the May 4 primary election?

That’s what the National Political Awareness Test ensures: knowledgeable voters who aren’t swayed by slick TV ads. Nicknamed the NPAT, the test is conducted by Montana-based Project Vote Smart, a not-for-profit organization that exists solely to help voters become informed.

The organization surveys candidates for federal and key state offices, then makes the results available on the Internet (www.vote-smart.org) and by telephone (1-888-VOTE-SMART). The project also collects voting records, speeches and other data to provide as full a picture as possible of a candidate’s credentials.

NPAT of course is not the best way to find out those things. The best way is for people to attend debates, meet candidates and ask questions one-on-one. NPAT is, however, the most convenient and credible way for voters to find out a load of information with a few mouse clicks.

No matter how many Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinners Kernan attends, no matter how many miles Daniels puts on his mobile campaign headquarters, no matter how many speeches Miller delivers in banquet halls, these guys simply can’t meet every Hoosier before Election Day.

Perhaps more important than Project Vote Smart’s role as a repository of information is its role as a neutral asker of questions. If a candidate isn’t willing to answer them, it should raise red flags for voters.

Many newspapers are sold on the merits of Project Vote Smart because it complements reporters’ efforts to hold candidates accountable. In 2000, The Indianapolis Star agreed to print the names of congressional candidates who refused to answer NPAT questions. In 2002, The Star"s editorial board went a step further and decided to give NPAT participants an edge in the endorsement process. It’s a tactic worth considering by all media that issue endorsements.

If that sounds like bullying, consider this: Both the Democratic and Republican Party officials advise their candidates NOT to answer the NPAT. Why? Because, by putting their answers in writing, it makes it harder for advertising gurus to control and spin their messages. Who’s the bully here?

Thomas Jefferson said, "I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education."

Sadly, most discretion today is informed by television. Kernan, a Democrat, and Daniels, the likely GOP challenger, have been on the air for weeks to mold their images. A recent Democratic appeal for donations predicted this will be the most expensive race for governor in Indiana history, noting that commercials like the ones Kernan has been running cost about $500,000 a week.

The influence of TV ads, and an increase in negative ads, were major reasons Vote Smart was created in 1992 by a group that included former Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. Says Project Vote Smart President Richard Kimball, "All of us realize that the mudslinging tactics once associated only with the crudest kinds of local politics now characterize all campaigns and have stripped us of that one most crucial component in our struggle to self-govern: abundant, accurate and relevant information about those who govern us and whose who wish to replace those who do."

In the 1996 elections, more than 70 percent of candidates responded to the NPAT. In 2002, the response rate was less than 50 percent, and below 35 percent for candidates in the major parties.

One positive sign. Fifty of this year’s candidates for the Indiana House, including 26 incumbents from both parties, have filled out the NPAT. Nine candidates for the Indiana Senate, four of them incumbents, have done so. This is a higher return rate at this point in the election than in 2002.

Kernan and his general election opponent will have a chance to redeem themselves after the primary when NPAT volunteers will again contact their campaigns. Wouldn’t it be neat if Indiana, which ranks low on so many national measures, had the highest NPAT response rate come Nov. 2?



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