Project Vote Smart comes to campus

Through a new partnership, a group of USC students will be conducting research that will help voters form decisions about the potential candidates in the 2012 presidential election.

USC undergraduate students will act on behalf of Project Vote Smart, a non-profit, non-partisan voter education organization, providing information to the public about political candidates.

Project Vote Smart, which has organized similar internships with students at Oregon State University and the University of Arizona, has chosen to bring its internship program to USC and the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics because they see room for growth, according to Kate McElroy, the director of the Political Courage Test for Project Vote Smart.

“USC and the Unruh institute are enthusiastic about what we’re doing,” McElroy said. “There’s this combination of all these young, brilliant minds and something is going to come up that will completely change how we look at things.”

Last spring, Project Vote Smart administrators visited USC along with other universities to find a new location for their project.

Dan Schnur, the director of the Unruh Institute, said Project Vote Smart decided to hold the program at USC because of the enthusiastic students.

“A lot of our students do typical political internships like working in governors’ offices,” Schnur said. “But the prospect of doing research that could have an impact on state or national campaigns really seemed to catch the attention of a lot of students.”

The new internship class has been well received by USC students with about 25 students enrolled, according to Schnur. The other class that engages in more ordinary political internships has between 40 and 50 students.

Art Auerbach, the internship coordinator for the Unruh Institute, and Bret VandenBos, a former USC student and internship associate at the Unruh Institute, oversee the students who will help determine which political issues are most important to Americans by researching national polling data, evaluating party platforms and looking at major media sources.

Each election year, the researchers at Project Vote Smart create a Political Courage Test for all federal, state and sometimes local candidates to assess where candidates fall on important issues.

The researchers then focus on the answers to about 12 questions they feel most critically affect the American public during the election year.

But only about 25 percent of the 1,400 candidates in each election year, return the test, McElroy said.

If a politician declines to answer the Political Courage Test, the USC interns will determine that candidate’s stance through research.

“When candidates take the test, it means something to us and to the American people,” McElroy said. “But if you don’t want to tell the people where you stand, we’re capable of researching and doing it for you.”

The students will be consolidating the information on potential 2012 presidential candidates so that Project Vote Smart can utilize the program VoteEasy.

VoteEasy is an interactive tool that asks individuals to answer the same 12 political questions to learn which federal, state or local candidates share their points of view, according to McElroy.

This easily accessible information will give citizens the knowledge they need to vote for candidates who hold the same beliefs, McElroy said.

“The entire population of USC could possibly swing an election if the students have the knowledge to vote and actually do it,” McElroy said.

Schnur agrees that USC students will benefit from Project Vote Smart.

“Fox will tell you one thing and MSNBC will tell you another,” Schnur said. “If you’re a politically-informed student whose trying to decide which candidate is closest to you, Vote Smart is the place you can go to find this information in a non-partisan way.”

Project Vote Smart, headquartered in Philipsburg, Mont., was started by Richard Kimball, a former member of the Arizona Legislature, in the early ’90s because he was unhappy with the current state of politics, according to McElroy.

“He decided that politics had disintegrated into mudslinging and none of the information that was being distributed to the masses was useful for understanding where candidates stood on issues,” McElroy said of her boss. “He wants to bring civility back into politics.”