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Project Vote Smart _ Congress’ Toll-Free Conscience

March 2, 1995

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Suspicious that your senator has waffled on the balanced budget? Or term limits?

A Boston-based organization named Project Vote Smart is dedicating a toll-free phone line to answer voter questions about politicians and their voting records.

``We decided to offer citizens an independent alternative,″ said Adelaide Elm, director of public information for the nonpartisan information service.

In February it launched CongressTrack, which compares the daily voting records of congressional officials with their campaign promises. A project priority is to remain ``fiercely nonpartisan.″ Its founding board of directors includes former Presidents Carter and Ford, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and Rep. Ron Dellums, D-Calif.

With a budget of $1.25 million and 14 full-time staffers, funded by individual donations and grants from foundations, Project Vote Smart began building a database of voting records, campaign finance records, addresses and phone numbers in 1992.

The database is grounded from responses to the organization’s national political awareness test. ``We sort of conducted a job interview with the national political awareness test,″ said Elm. ``We asked them 100 questions that they would have to deal with if they were elected.″

In 1992 the return rate of the test was about half. Last year the project received almost 65 percent of the questionnaires it sent out.

``In the national political awareness test we’ve had some resistance from candidates,″ said Angela Twitchell, director of the phone line in Boston. ``Hopefully they’re coming around.″

CongressTrack is the logical step from Project Vote Smart, which was used by many of Congress’s new members to wage successful campaigns.

The campaign of Democratic freshman Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Texas used his opponent’s answers to criticize her changes on key issues.

But David Watkins, Doggett’s legislative assistant, said the system still has some bugs.

``You’ve got to know what you’re after,″ he said. ``Abortion is not a yes-no question. When you call in, you need to know what the person’s options were when they answered the question.″

For example, of the eight abortion responses on the test, Doggett chose one of the most liberal: ``Abortions should be legal in all circumstances as long as the procedure is completed within the first trimester of pregnancy.″

A more conservative candidate could have opted for: ``Congress should eliminate federal funding for clinics and medical facilities that provide abortion services.″

Eight or nine responses are provided on the test, including an alternative for candidates to compose their own response.

The project has offices in Boston and Corvallis, Ore., staffed by local college interns who receive credit for researching and staffing the phone lines.

Peter Nye, editor of the consumer watchdog Public Citizen magazine, said the project was ambitious and crucial. ``I think the idea of post-election, holding candidates accountable is important,″ he said. ``It sounds so good. Don’t we all want to vote smart?″

The project is collecting information on presidential candidates as they announce their candidacies and should be completed by the fall. A state legislature database is also being constructed.

``We are planning to cover as many of the state and legislative races around the country as we can,″ Elm said.

Kim James at the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee said the market is never too crowded with political information. The project ``provides a service for the electorate, which in this day and age never falls on deaf ears,″ James said.

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The project toll-free number is 1 (800) 622-7627; its Internet address is gopher gopher.new.edu.

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