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Strapped for Cash, Election Info-Providing Project Vote Smart Might Have To Sell The Ranch

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Thursday, February 23 2012

Project Vote Smart's headquarters is located on a 160-acre Montana homestead and is largely powered by volunteers, pictured here

Project Vote Smart, a non-partisan voting information project whose volunteer-contributed research powers thousands of government, non-profit and commercial news web sites in the Web 2.0 age — including sites for the Federal Voting Assistance Program and CNN, among others — is struggling so much financially that its co-founder plans to suggest to his board that they literally sell the ranch.

Project Vote Smart is a non-partisan project established in 1992 that aims to provide objective factual information about political candidates to voters. This information includes who's on voters' ballots both nationally and locally, candidates' professional backgrounds and educations, marital status, religion, key votes, recent public statements and interest group ratings. In addition to adult voters, the project's information is widely used by schools to teach civics. Richard Kimball, its president, founded the non-profit in 1992 after experimenting with the idea for several years after he lost a 1986 race as a Democratic candidate for Arizona's senate seat against John McCain.

The project has never had an easy time landing money -- partly because it imposes strict rules on itself regarding who it will accept funding from. It won't accept money directly from corporations or labor unions, "or other organizations that lobby, support or oppose candidates or issues." A confluence of unfortunate developments and trends has led to a deteriorating financial situation, leading Kimball to experiment with new ways of raising money, such as recording a fundraising YouTube video.

"All of our foundation money is gone, we can't do mailings anymore, and now if you look at our web site, the most successful thing we've done is our YouTube video, which might raise about $10,000, but $10,000 will just get us through three and one third days," said Project Vote Smart's president and co-founder in an interview.

The group is also supported by members, who pay a suggested minimum membership fee of $45 a year.

The non-profit has been surviving on savings and those memberships, but its base for dues is dwindling, Kimball said. Membership, once numbering 40,000, has dwindled to around 23,000, Kimball said — thanks in part to an aging member base that's shrinking as members pass away.

"I write at least a dozen condolence letters to families each month telling them about what their family member that died did to help this project," Kimball said.

The project's budget for 2012 is $900,000, down from its normal $1.5 million, and the program has made some cutbacks. In an election year it would normally have about 40 staff members coordinating data collection, but this year it's down to 21. Kimball said the big issue for the project is how it's going to fund itself after 2012.

The project is headquartered at a remote 160-acre ranch in Southwestern Montana in the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness, with offices at the University of Southern California and the University of Texas in Austin. The idea behind the ranch was to attract university students who would commit to work full workdays for free for 10 weeks in the summer in a beautiful place. Their payment comes in the form of accommodation, food and the chance to participate in recreational activities like horse-back riding and fly fishing lessons after work. But when Kimball meets with his board in the next couple of weeks, he's going to raise the idea of selling the ranch. He has already decided to close its USC office.

It appears that the project is a casualty of both bad luck and the recent recession, having its funding cut off from foundations such as the Pew Charitable Trusts and the MacArthur Foundation. But it also took a major financial hit in 2009 when the JEHT Foundation, one of its major backers with a focus on civics, shut down because most of its endowment was tied up in Bernie Madoff's fraudulent hedge fund.

The irony is that Project Vote Smart's databases, painstakingly put together by thousands of idealistic young volunteers over the course of 20 years and constantly updated, currently powers more than 1,700 web sites that range from the Department of Defense's Federal Voting Assistance Program to CNN's Election Center.

The project has offered its data for free and has over the years encouraged third party developers to freely dip into its databases through application programming interfaces. Much of the data is basic voting information that you'd imagine local elections offices making available, but it's not made available in machine-readable form online. It includes basic information about 40,000 candidates and officials around the country as well as ballot information. Voters can plug in their zip code into the project's web site or call an 800 number to discover who their local candidates are. Many of them are often not covered in the press, and many states don't have voter guides like California does.

With all of this civic information available for free, developers have put it to use with many experiments on the web and on mobile devices. To name a few examples:

  • The Federal Voting Assistance Program's Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot uses Project Vote Smart's ballot information to generate ballots for overseas and military voters to vote with, as does the Overseas Vote Foundation.
  • The National Institute on Money in State Politics' Legislative Committee Analysis Tool mashes up the project's state legislative committee information with their campaign finance information to expose financial influence in state legislatures.
  • CNN's 2010 Election Center used the project's political candidate biographical information, public position statements, interest group ratings, and voting record information to generate basic factual profiles of congressional candidates.
  • Google used the project's candidate lists and mashed them up with polling data in the 2010 elections to map the political landscape
  • The Florida House of Representatives' Find Your Representative feature uses the project's directory of officials to let residents of Florida know who their representatives are.
  • AT&T's 2010 VoterHub Mobile App used the project's candidate information listings to make voting information more accessible to people with smart phones.

But in order to address its deteriorating financial situation, Kimball and his staff earlier this year decided to implement a schedule of fees. That caused some unhappy murmurings in the open data community.

"We try to provide our information free of charge since our creation over 20 years ago," Kimball said in an interview. "But people are using our [application programming interfaces] to create their own systems and prevent people coming to visit us, and of course they then have no incentive to understand who we are, and it's killing us financially."

Kimball and the project's National Director Kristen Vicedomini say that for the most part the change in policy has not generated too many complaints, although many groups have yet to respond with a check in the mail. Kimball says that some groups have said he should charge more for the data. Fees range from $2,000 a year for large organizations and commercial entities to $250 for smaller groups with smaller or no audiences who are experimenting with the data.

All of this highlights the larger issue of the availability of basic voting information, or the lack of it in what is supposed to be the information age.

"I think if we're going to have a hope of combating the influence of political advertising, it will be through building good, objective sources of information that people can turn to," says Tom Cross, a computer security researcher in Atlanta, Georgia, who's been using Project Vote Smart's APIs to build an experimental voter guide to regional and local politicians called the Wiki Voter Guide. "We can use the Internet to build better information resources, but in order to do that, some of the basic data about who is running for office where needs to be made available in an open format that people can access, experiment with, and build on top of."

Ideally, that data would be provided in a useable machine-readable format by local elections officials, but failing that, Project Vote Smart is the sole resource.

Cross recently contacted techPresident about the fee change because February 22 was the deadline he had been given to pay the $2,000 for access to the project's APIs. His site apparently didn't fit neatly into any of the categories defined by Project Vote Smart because while it doesn't get much traffic in between elections, its audience swells just before election days when millions of voters try to look up information about their ballots at the last minute. (Cross was able to get through to the staff at Project Vote Smart at the last minute and negotiate the fee down to $250.)

Other users are still evaluating their options.

"We're very sorry to see that Project Vote Smart feels that they must begin charging developers to use their data," Tom Lee, Sunlight Labs' director, told techPresident. "Sunlight hasn't yet made a final determination about licensing PVS data. PVS has not yet defined terms for the specific uses we have in mind for their data, so unfortunately we're going to have to proceed through a proposal and negotiation process before we know if our PVS-dependent projects can continue."

Sunlight uses Project Vote Smart's data to power its interest group rating view in its Politiwidgets and the website OpenGovernment.

Echoing Cross, he added:

"Their API offers important information that currently can't be gotten anywhere else. It's a shame, and it speaks to a real need for the philanthropic community to seek out, recognize and support this kind of quiet, ongoing work -- work that must be sustained if we want more experimental or high-profile projects to remain possible."