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Just yesterday, my twin brother called me up to chat, and he recommended I try out a new feature on Project Vote Smart's web page. Project Vote Smart is a nonpartisan political information organization led by journalists, politicians and political scientists from across the ideological spectrum: where else can you find Newt Gingrich and Geraldine Ferraro on the same board of directors? Recently selected by the American Political Science Association as the "Best Political Web Site", Vote Smart offers information on biographical background, issue positions, votes and campaign contributions for candidates running for President, the U.S. Congress, state governorships, state legislatures, and even some local offices.

That's a lot of information, isn't it? Unfortunately, there's so much information that sometimes I've felt like I was drowning in it when I visited the site for a little research. But they've added a new feature that organizes all that information into a useful, digestible format. It's now possible for you to take the same survey on issues that all the candidates are asked to complete. Vote Smart then tells you how many issue positions you hold in common with the presidential or congressional candidates you're interested in.

Now, hold your horses, because Vote Smart offers you even more options for you with this feature! If you're simply interested in candidates' stand on abortion, for instance, you can just take THAT portion of the survey and then compare your responses to candidates' responses on abortion. There are twenty-four of these separate issue areas for you to choose from. If, on the other hand, you want to gauge overall fit with a set of candidates, you can take the whole survey and get an idea of who agrees with you most in general.

To give you an idea of the depth and subtlety of the survey, let's look at the "Abortion Issues" section (it's disabled here; you'll have to go to the Vote Smart web site to fill the survey out). These questions go beyond the simple "do you support a woman's right to choose" / "do you support the right to life" fight and ask about a variety of real policy issues:

Abortion Issues

Indicate which principles you support (if any) concerning abortion.

a) Abortions should always be illegal.

b) Abortions should be illegal when the fetus is viable, with or without life support.

c) Abortions should always be legally available.

d) Abortions should be legal only within the first trimester of pregnancy.

e) Abortions should be legal when the pregnancy resulted from incest or rape.

f) Abortions should be legal when the life of the woman is endangered.

g) Abortions should be limited by waiting periods and notification requirements as decided by each state government.

h) Prohibit the dilation and extraction procedure, also known as "partial birth" abortion.

i) Prohibit public funding of abortions and public funding of organizations that advocate or perform abortions.

j) Support funding for research on the drug RU-486.

k) Support "buffer-zones" by requiring demonstrators to stay at least five feet from abortion clinic doorways and driveways.

l) Provide funding for family planning programs as a means to decrease the number of abortions.

m) Other

2) Will your Supreme Court nominees share your principles on abortion?
Yes No Undecided

There are a couple of frustrating situations you might encounter with the Vote Smart survey. The first situation involves a lack of answers from candidates. A number of candidates have refused to fill out the survey, even though they have been asked repeatedly to do so. I can't see into their brains to figure out why, but it's not difficult to guess: for some reason, some candidates don't want you to know where they stand on the issues. If you find that a candidate for office where you are registered hasn't filled out the survey, you might want to fire off a quick letter asking them to explain why.

An opposite situation you may encounter is being flooded with the responses of too many candidates. Project Vote Smart includes the survey answers of hundreds of presidential candidates, for example. Most of these candidates have been written off by the mainstream press as irrelevant. The folks at Vote Smart think you should be the judge of who or what is relevant, and I tend to agree with them. However, the practical problem is wading through all the names and faces that pop up at you all at once. It's a bit like drinking water from a firehose. I have two suggestions for dealing with the huge amounts of information here. First, start with the candidates at the top: they are the most like you in their attitudes, so you may want to take a closer look at them. Second, if you're interested in how closely a particular candidate (say, George W. Bush) is to you, try a text search for their name (in Windows, this is done by pressing Control-F).

There are those who say that we voters are offered too much information already, that the candidates should stop talking about the details of what we believe -- because it's either too boring to listen to or too dangerous to have an informed electorate. I say phooey to those folks. If you too believe that you have a right to know where the candidates stand, and if you want an easy yet comprehensive comparison of your views with all the available candidates, then I suggest you click here and try Vote Smart's candidate comparison survey today.

This article is an installation of the Irregular Politics column, posted October 3, 2000.