Civic collectives team up to provide accessible data

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This month, the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Participation will begin managing Project Vote Smart’s Key Votes program, a free online database that provides citizens with access to congressional and state legislative voting records.

Project Vote Smart, a nonpartisan and nonprofit organization, chose the institute instead of applicants from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Duke University and the University of Southern California. The center will begin compiling data and research in January.

Republican and Democratic national leaders such as Gerald Ford, Michael Dukakis, Jimmy Carter and Newt Gingrich, founded Project Vote Smart in 1992. The organization, which is funded by foundation grants and individual contributions, researches the voting records, backgrounds, issue positions, campaign contributions, interest group ratings and public statements of more than 40,000 candidates and elected officials.

The institute is seeking 20 to 30 undergraduate students with an interest in government, journalism or political communication to intern 10 or more hours each week researching and compiling the voting records of elected officials.

“In order to be an engaged citizen, one must have access to high-quality information about their government,” said Rod Hart, director of the institute. “Our partnership with Project Vote Smart to manage the Key Votes program dovetails nicely with our mission of creating more voters and better citizens through high-quality, nonpartisan information.”

The project will pick the votes by Congress and state legislators that they believe are important based on five criteria. They will determine whether the vote is helpful in portraying how a member stands on a particular issue, clear for the public to understand, has received media attention, passed or defeated by a close margin, and sometimes, whether a specific bill is consistently inquired about on the project’s Voter’s Research Hotline.

Undergraduate researchers, along with Key Votes staff, will then write descriptions based on information included in the Congressional Record, and in the state house and senate journals. Additional background information will be pulled from newspapers, magazines and other media.

“All of this will come together and allow an individual to be able to pull up on an online database to see how their own representative is voting,” said Chuck Courtney, associate director of the institute. “This will simplify the language of legislation so that voters have a chance to understand the issues.”