I’m doing some research on the Democrats in the Virginia state legislature, and am disappointed to discover that most of them have failed the political courage test required of them in answering Vote Smart‘s policy positions questionnaire for 2019.
As I check each Virginia delegate, Vote Smart says: “[candidate X] has failed to provide voters with positions on key issues covered by the 2019 Political Courage Test, despite repeated requests from Vote Smart and voters like you.
This lack of participation is pathetic.
Here’s the complete list of 5 delegates who have filled out the 2019 survey: Chris Hurst, David Bulova, Kaye Kory, Vivian Watts, and Patrick Hope.
The Annenberg Public Policy Center describes Project Vote Smart as “a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that gathers and organizes information on candidates for political office. Vote Smart seeks to discover where candidates stand on any number of issues by scouring public voting records, public statements and biographical information, by monitoring ratings of candidates given by more than 100 competing special-interest groups, and by sending its own detailed questionnaires to candidates through its National Political Awareness Test.” Vote Smart is a very valuable source of information for voters, because you can find their bio, their voting record, where they get their money, what they might have said in speeches, and see their ratings by third party groups.
It turns out that most politicians, being politicians, have decided it’s just too risky to go on record with specifics about where they stand on issues. They believe their opponents will “use their words against them” as U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords said about why she only filled out the survey for her first term as a state legislator. A Democratic party leader in Florida in 2006 said they counsel all of their candidates to not participate in Vote Smart for this reason (Wall Street Journal).
One of the candidates I interviewed this year asked me to make the interview “private” after someone in the Virginia Democratic Party advised the candidate that a quote might be used against him/her. I asked if anything the candidate said was inaccurate or could not be stated publicly? “No, but I don’t want to be exposed to attack ads,” the candidate said. “They told me it might happen.”
Guess what? You’ll be exposed to attack ads regardless of what you might say in response to a journalist or interest group’s question about your stance on a variety of positions.
As one voter told me outside a polling place on Election Day, when I cheerfully tried to hand him a sample ballot: “They think we’re idiots.” He went on to explain: “In all their glossy brochures and their websites they say less and less. It’s just generalities and nothing specific. They don’t list their qualifications or accomplishments like anyone else would have to do on their resume if they were applying for a job. That’s what they are doing, isn’t it… applying for a job? Why should I vote for you? Just because you are a Democrat?”
Fact is, once elected and ensconced in the protective womb of incumbency, elected officials are even less likely to respond specifically to where they stand on policy. That sucks.
Vote Smart’s founder Richard Kimball was quoted in November 2015 as saying, “From my standpoint, it’s an absolute outrage. They are intentionally organizing to strip citizens of the one absolutely crucial component in the struggle of any free people to govern themselves: their right to abundant, accurate, relevant information.”
Vote Smart was founded in 1992 and included both Jimmy Carter and Barry Goldwater on its first board of directors. It does not accept donation from corporations, labor unions, political parties or other organizations that lobby, support or oppose candidates or issues. It is funded through individual donations and foundations. Project Vote Smart It gets a 3 out of 4 star rating by Charity Navigator.
Vote Smart won’t be hampered by the fact that questionnaires remain unanswered. There are voting records, tweets, endorsements, and articles to track policy positions. And if you are a politician who truly leaves no tracks, then you can expect to be opposed in a primary by someone who is willing to go on record with where they stand.
The League of Women Voters also has a candidate questionnaire but participation is equally dismal there.