Mon, Aug 23, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Smart Vote helps baffled US voters

ENLIGHTENMENT The group Project Smart Vote is seeing to it that American voters are not entirely subject to political spin as the presidential election approaches


The calls come to Project Vote Smart in a steady stream, from New York and New Mexico, from California and Connecticut, from the confused in every corner of the land.

Who is my congressman, they ask. How can I reach him? How do I register to vote? Who is running for office? Where do they stand on the issues?

Some know exactly what to ask. But others, says 21-year-old volunteer Kelly Flanagan, "have a very vague idea of what they want" -- they are stumbling through the labyrinth of American democracy without a map. There are many of those people, and come November, they will help choose the next leader of the most powerful country on the planet.

They are ignorant though they are awash with information -- on television and radio, in print and on the Internet. They are ill-informed because they do not have the time or inclination to learn, or misinformed because they are at the mercy of spinmeisters.

"We're not well informed, and a lot of that is our fault," says Mario Cuomo, former governor of New York. It would be an overstatement to paint America as a confederacy of dunces; there are those who say we may not be a nation of civic superstars, but we know enough to get by. And in a crisis -- in wartime or economic hard times -- voters pay more attention, and are better informed, experts say.

Preconceived notions can derail a citizen's judgment. Cass Sunstein, a professor of law at the University of Chicago, says the Internet can keep minds closed instead of opening them; people who previously had to wade through newspapers that offered opposing points of view now turn to Web sites or television channels that conform with their own beliefs.

Fourteen years ago, Richard Kimball -- a failed candidate for US Senate from Arizona -- established Project Vote Smart. The goal was to dispense nonpartisan voter information.

Today, 30 staffers and 40 interns work at the project's headquarters at the Great Divide Ranch in Montana. But gigabytes of voting records, campaign speeches and finance records are no match for the millions of dollars spent by candidates to burnish their image, attack their opponents and spin their stands on the issues.

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