March 2, 2000
Web sites make voting records and campaign contributions an open secret
"I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education" -- Thomas Jefferson
Are you planning to vote in the California primary on March 7? Do you want to follow the money in the presidential race? Where have Bush and Gore raised their money? Which candidate has raised the most money in California? Who is running for State Assembly in your district? Are you curious about the actual voting records of elected officials -- and their ratings from different political groups?
Anyone with a computer can now access a tremendous amount of information, opinion, and soft propaganda for and about almost any candidate running for national or state office. Moving beyond newspaper Web archives, people can research candidates by examining several nonpartisan and individual candidate sites.
* Project Vote Smart (www.vote-smart.org) maintains a national library of factual information on over 13,000 candidates for public office -- president, governors, Congress and state legislatures. The in-depth site covers the candidates in five basic areas: background, issue position, voting record, campaign financing and performance evaluation -- as filed by over 80 special-interest groups, from conservative to liberal. Partly financed by the Ford, Carnegie and Pew Foundations, the nonpartisan organization's board members have included former Senators Goldwater, McGovern and Proxmire, and Presidents Carter and Ford.
A useful feature on the site allows one to get a complete list of elected officials and candidates by entering a zip code. The site also lists biographies and detailed voting scorecards by a wide variety of political organizations. The special-interests scorecard features issues like: abortion/family planning, children, guns, health care and immigration. These professional evaluations/ratings provide a concise, yet detailed, overview of an elected official's votes. The Project Vote Smart site also includes links to American Jewish Committee (www.ajc.org) and other organizations engaged in influencing public opinion on a variety of issues. The complexity of the site's interface can make the site somewhat confusing, so an older, simplified version is available (www.vote-smart.org/index-old.phtml).
* The Center for Responsive Politics (www.opensecrets.org), another nonpartisan organization, specializes in tracking the money in political campaigns. The site invites viewers to examine the money behind presidential and congressional candidates, including detailed breakdowns of the total amount raised by geography (state, zip code) and top contributors (name, industry, affiliation).
Visitors are also invited to snoop on their neighbors' political donations by simply entering a zip code. Site discoveries include that zip code 90210 includes 1,074 individuals who have donated $1,000 or more to various presidential candidates -- with several individuals donating to more than one candidate. Andrew Scheinman, a film executive at Castle Rock, donated $1,000 to both Al Gore and Bill Bradley. Fellow Castle Rock film director/producer Rob Reiner preferred to just donate $1,000 twice to Gore.
Perhaps the most fascinating and useful feature on opensecrets.org remains the summary statements examining the top contributors -- by industry/interest group -- for each candidate. The predictable usually leads: $185,100 from Houston law office Vinson and Elkins donated to the Bush campaign; and Goldman, Sachs, & Co. have organized $50,000 plus bundles for Bush, Bradley and Gore. Larger donors, usually organized around business or industry concerns, dominate the contributions to all four major candidates.
Yet there are illuminating surprises, such as the contribution of $52,250 to Al Gore from the National Jewish Democratic Council -- his sixth largest contributor. And Alan Keyes, the religious conservative, has received 85 percent of his donations from small donors.
FECinfo (www.tray.com) has more systematically organized fundraising patterns and spending priorities of candidates. The specialized FECinfo site also includes a feature that details the Clinton Legal Expense Trust and Clinton Library Donors (DreamWorks SKG founders Geffen, Speilberg and Katzenberg have each pledged to give or raise $1 million. Lew Wasserman, the chairman of Universal Studios, pledged $5-10 million). Janet Reno's recent report on the vice president, among other documents from 1996, is also available.
The site also provides lists of PAC money contributions that goes back to the 1980s. FECinfo focuses on soft and hard money, with longer detailed listings of the "Top 500 Soft Money Donors." The New York Times called FECinfo "the granddaddy of all independent campaign finance Web sites and perhaps the most comprehensive." Slate Magazine praised it as "the best disclosure site."
For information on California candidates and statewide issues, the California Voter Foundation's Web site, www.calvoter.org, stands out by far as the best site. The non-profit and nonpartisan site, put up on Feb. 18, 2000, systematically classifies information in a user-friendly and logical manner.
For instance, the top 10 donors for and against each proposition are listed. The Roman Catholic archbishop of Los Angeles gave $144,998 to limit marriage to heterosexual couples, while Kathy Levinson, the president of E*Trade, gave $303,443 to oppose Proposition 22. Each proposition summary page contains a concise overview of the proposal along with direct links to official Web sites. A 10-minute visit can provide an immense amount of information.
*Candidate sites also provide a wealth of information from an openly partisan perspective. The Bradley site (www.billbradley.com) features speeches, video ads, and a pitch from fellow basketball star Michael Jordan. The Bush site (www.georgewbush.com) fronts with his new slogan, "a reformer with results," and includes a searchable donor database. Gore's site, (www.algore2000.com) features a catalog of his most important speeches including one celebrating Israel's 50th anniversary. McCain's site (www.mccain2000.com), the source of over $1.5 million since the New Hampshire primary, includes a video biography for $25 and a campaign finance reform petition.