COLUMBIA — A 45-foot-long red- and blue-striped bus was parked outside Jefferson City’s Community Center on Saturday afternoon.
The bus represents Project Vote Smart, a non-partisan, non-profit voter education organization that is traveling the country to spread the word about the nation’s first “voter self-defense system,” a giant database of roughly 40,000 candidates who are running for office in the U.S.
Project resourcesAt vote-smart.org, voters can search for candidates and current officials by last name or ZIP code. Data maintained Biographies and contact information Campaign finance records Issue positions, as determined by candidates’ responses on the National Political Awareness Test. Key votes grouped by issue Public statements and speeches Veto records for governors and the president — Source: vote-smart.org.
The database, at vote-smart.org, contains candidate’s biographical information, lists of upcoming appearances and recent endorsements and stances on issues.
Project Vote Smart was started in 1990 by politicians and a group of student activists who didn’t like the direction in which U.S. politics were going, said Mike Wessler, media director for Project Vote Smart. “They felt that politicians were sizing up voters, telling them what they wanted to hear, regardless of whether or not it was the truth,” he said.
Sixteen years, roughly 6,000 volunteers and $12 million later, the project was complete The bus tour started in Florida in 2007, and the organization plans to cross the country a few more times. In two weeks, the bus will be in California.
“We are traveling around the country to tell people about what we call our Voters Self Defense System,” said J.J. Clemens, legislative research director for Project Vote Smart.
The bus is set up like a mobile Wi-Fi unit, with a movie theater on board. People can watch a short film that highlights the history of the organization and the services it provides.
Outside the bus is a giant inflatable ball, decorated like the American flag, which people can sign when they visit.
“We’re rolling this across the country to kind of give people a canvas to write their messages or feelings about how they want politics to be run today. We’re going to drop this off in Washington at the end of the campaign and have a press conference and tell the candidates about what people think,” Clemens said.
Wessler said the bus tour is a way to teach people about Project Vote Smart. “We were trying to come up with ways to let people know about us. Only 10 percent of people in our country knew it was available. What better way to let people know than to travel to their community and let them know them know we exist,” he said.
Clemens said the turnout at the Vote Smart bus stops has varied.
“The stop today (in Jefferson City), we haven’t had too many, probably ten to fifteen people. A typical stop, we usually have one to two hundred people come by in a day,” he said.
Of those who did turn out for the bus, they had a generally positive response.
“Most people are amazed that something like this exists, a resource just to get factual information. Most people are pretty thrilled when they do find out about it, that there’s someplace they can really go now, to a Web site or call a number and get just factual information. We’ve had a really good response everywhere we’ve gone,” Clemens said.
Leon and Rosemary Stevens drove from Columbia to visit Project Vote Smart’s bus. Rosemary Stevens became familiar with Project Vote Smart through the League of Women Voters in Columbia.
“I think it’s neat to have a non-partisan group where someone can go and get information on a candidate. People need to take more advantage of this type of thing and find out about it,” Rosemary said.
She contacted the League of Women Voters in hopes of getting the bus to Columbia, but it was unable to find a place for it during the organization’s time frame, she said. They wanted to bring it to MU, but classes weren’t in session.
Lori Rosburg of Jefferson City was just driving by when she saw the bus and stopped. Never having heard of the project before, she left feeling satisfied and excited about its goals.
“I was really impressed. Somewhere along the line, we’ve lost our identity of ‘for the people. by the people’ and we’ve given way both nationally and locally to the almighty dollar, and that seems to have influenced a lot of things,” she said.
Rosburg enjoyed watching the informative video and found it effective.
“It sends a powerful message,” she said. “I think a lot of people, not just young people, can benefit from watching their video.”