It’s winter in rural Montana and just outside the small, picturesque town of Phillipsburg lies a log cabin amidst the rough terrain, wild woods and brilliant blue of the Montana sky. One might expect to see the reincarnation of Henry David Thoreau waltzing through this setting, but instead one is more likely to encounter a pack of idealists dedicated not to the preservation of man and nature, but of democracy. Within these mountains lies the headquarters of Project Vote Smart, one of many non-profit, grass-roots organizations working to educate voters even after the 2004 election.
Project Vote Smart’s goal is to provide unbiased, factual information to citizens in five basic areas: biographical information, campaign finance issues, interest group ratings, voting records and issue positions via the National Political Awareness Test. Vote Smart was founded to create a Voters Self-Defense system to protect voters from biased information about candidates both at local and national levels. In order to insure the information remains objective, Project Vote Smart does not accept money from lobbyists, governmental organizations, corporations, businesses or special interest groups, but solely from the private donations of over 46,000 individuals and numerous charitable foundations. My brother, Ted Lawless, is an MSU graduate who now serves as the Vote Smart national director. Workers at his organization, he explained, must “check their politics at the door.”
[vote] During the course of the months leading up to the election, a small staff, aided by 40 interns and several volunteers, administered the National Political Awareness Test to candidates, conversed with the media and checked facts to keep voters informed. On November 2, Lawless said, “[P]eople were calling by the hour, thousands of average citizens calling on their way to the voting booth.” Between November 1 and 2, the Project Vote Smart website received over 16 million hits and their office took 3,000 calls from people doing last-minute research.
Meanwhile, somewhere closer to home and with a slightly different agenda, representatives from the Michigan Democratic Party were also making a concentrated grass-roots effort to inform voters during the 2004 election. Repeatedly canvassing dorms, talking to students and re-registering voters all lead to a constant effort to educate voters on why and how the Democratic candidates could best serve their political needs. John Fournier, political theory junior and current president of the MSU Democrats said, “We are the legs of the organization.” Although Democrats may have lost the war nationally, they won the battle locally: 90 percent of MSU students voted, 78 percent of which voted Democrat. Since the election, the MSU Democrats have been trying to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses in the past election and concentrate their efforts on the upcoming 2008 elections.
While Democrats were busy promoting Sen. John Kerry, the Michigan Republican Party led an aggressive grass-roots effort to talk to friends, families and neighbors about George W. Bush’s plans for a second term. The Republicans tried to approach everyone despite some peoples’ strong feelings of opposition regarding the current administration’s stance on issues such as the war in Iraq and gay marriage. In a state that has voted Democratic in the past four presidential elections, Nate Bailey, communications and research coordinator for the Michigan Republican Party and an international relations sophomore, stated that sometimes the campaign was an “uphill battle.” The Republicans, too, are doing some re-evaluating now that the election is over. They hope to reclaim the governor’s seat after losing in 2002 to Jennifer Granholm. They also wish to reinforce the Republican majority already apparent in the state legislature. In the last few moments of the election, all three organizations felt the intensity of the past year whether they were taking phone calls informing voters, handing out last minute flyers, or calling registered voters.
When asked wither Project Vote Smart’s mission has changed, Lawless replied, “[M]any people see an election as the capstone of their involvement in politics and wait for two to four years to take part again. In a way, citizens have ‘hired’ public officials to represent their concerns in Washington or Lansing. It’s now the citizen’s job to evaluate or supervise these officials and make sure that they are performing as they promised during the campaign.” The best ways to stay informed are to read the newspaper; educate yourself about political ideals and, at best, keep an open mind. After all, politics can be tricky, and it’s hard to see the top from down here.

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