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Our Lip-Service Democracy

BY Micah L. Sifry | Tuesday, September 16 2008

On August 30, 2006, Senator John McCain co-signed a letter to "Ms. Sarah H. Palin" of 245 West 5th Avenue #28, Anchorage, AK, 99501. He, along with his co-signers former Governor Michael Dukakis, former US Rep. Bill Frenzel, and former US Rep. Geraldine Ferraro, were acting in their role as members of the board of Project Vote Smart, a nonpartisan citizen group. They were asking Palin, who was then one of several candidates for Governor of Alaska, to agree to take the "National Political Awareness Test" and tell citizens her positions on issues of concern to voters in her state. They noted:

Modern day political candidates often heed the destructive advice of political parties and consultants who tell them not to provide such information for fear of opposition research. Thus citizens are stripped of the information considered by the nation’s founders as crucial in our struggle to self govern: A citizen’s right to abundant, accurate and relevant information about those who govern or those who wish to replace those who do.

The letter to Palin noted that her answers would be reported as verbatim and distributed through PVS's website, which at the time was receiving upwards of 16 million hits a day, along with its printed "Voter's Self-Defense Manuals," its 1-800-Vote-Smart hotline, and thousands of libraries and community centers.

Palin never answered the letter from McCain and crew. Of course, she was not alone.

In 2006, just 43% of all the gubernatorial candidates contacted by PVS responded to the group's nonpartisan questionnaire. Just 46% of all federal candidates responded that year, down from 72% in 1996. We don't have overall numbers yet for 2008, but I doubt they've improved.

Project Vote Smart is a rare beast, a citizen-led, nonpartisan education organization that really has no bias other than getting more information into the hands of voters. No one can get on PVS's board without bringing an ideological opposite along, for balance. Thus, the overall trend toward less disclosure by candidates is disheartening.

Back in 1998, when Barack Obama was first running for Illinois state senate, he did respond to PVS state legislative survey. But in 2004, when running for US Senate, he did not respond, nor has he responded to the group's 2008 survey. It appears Senator Joe Biden has never responded to a Project Vote Smart survey. Nor have any of the main third-party candidates.

What about McCain, who wrote so eloquently in 2006 about information being essential to self-government? McCain did respond to PVS's survey in 2004, but this year, after no response to a reported 17 phone calls and 8 emails from PVS staff to McCain HQ asking him to respond to its 2008 survey, the Senator was kicked off the group's board.

That's because, as its director Richard Kimball explained, the board has a longstanding policy of not allowing non-respondents to serve on its board. Past candidate non-respondents Bill Bradley (while running for President in 2000) and Max Baucus, both Democrats, have been kicked off for similar reasons.

Everyone pays lip service to the issues, even voters. But if we can't figure out better ways to hold candidates and politicians accountable, that's all we're going to get: lip service.

[P.S.: Full disclosure is called for--I am a senior advisor to the Sunlight Foundation, which has provided technology staff support to Project Vote Smart for the development of its API.]