Voters can vet 2012 U.S. presidential and congressional candidates to see how they mesh with their own views without all the distractions and dissonance created by debates and sound bites.
The interactive online tool VoteEasy, housed on VoteSmart.org, puts hours of research on candidates and issues just a few mouse-clicks away from a voter's fingertips, allowing instant information on which candidates align with their own positions on key issues facing the country.
Visitors to VoteEasy key in their ZIP code to answer the same questions their candidates were asked, and VoteEasy displays the candidate or candidates most like them, with the option to drill deeper into the details of the candidates' records.
The data in VoteEasy combine responses to the organization's Political Courage Test directly from congressional candidates and information compiled by Vote Smart researchers on 12 hot-button issues: abortion, Afghanistan, crime, economy, education, environment, guns, healthcare, immigration, social issues, Social Security and taxes.
VoteEasy and Project Vote Smart represent a simple concept that's hard to achieve, Project Vote Smart President Richard Kimball says. It is a huge virtual warehouse of information about candidates of all political stripes developed by people whose only goal is to fill that warehouse.
"We cover all candidates," Kimball said of the political research center based in the Montana Rockies. "And they all get the same deference. … We don't have an ax to grind."
The program's volunteers -- all unpaid interns -- try to directly ask candidates 15 questions and document six efforts if they're rebuffed, Kimball said.
If the staff fails to get information from the candidates directly, then a "very thorough examination of records, comments, voting records, ratings review -- everything -- and divine, if you will, what would be the answer to the question if the candidate had [the] courage to answer it in the first place," Kimball said.
Candidates get another opportunity to talk to Project Vote Smart volunteers, Kimball says, because they're told, "We're going to answer on your behalf. If you think we're wrong, tell us. We'll clarify it."
Kimball said candidates should want to do "the right and honorable thing" and be as transparent as possible with the voting masses, but he's found "fewer candidates are willing to go on the record."
While traffic hasn't been as high as he and others had hoped, Kimball said he expects more people will visit the site once the 2012 election cycle really heats up.
Right now, politicos, researchers and people into politics visit the site, Kimball said. Citizens, he said, will visit as Election Day draws closer.
This is the first year no presidential candidate answered the organization's survey, he said.
"The more money that goes into the process, the more controlled the messages are," Kimball theorized.
A big reason candidates don't respond is the ability of the opposition to research their positions, he said.
"That's why they stay with their talking points. That's why they don't answer questions," Kimball said. "[To] not answer employer questions is not acceptable anywhere else. But for whatever reason, it's become part and parcel to candidates running for office."
He said the reticence worsened every election cycle since the first test was run in 1996.
Funny thing, though, about the Democrats and Republicans, Kimball said. The difference between the two parties never varied more than 2 percentage points.
And, "their strategies to obtain power are lockstep with each other," he said. Candidates now "tailor their image to fit, then saturate [the market] with commercials filled with negative nonsense."
Project Vote Smart has been on the Web since the late 1990s and is working with cutting-edge interactivity to make it simpler, easier and more inviting to educate voters about "civics in a real way."
"It's hard to compete with the Rush Limbaughs and the Keith Olbermanns," Kimball said. "People like to go to their political preachers to learn how to behave in politics."
But if political talk show hosts are the political preachers, Kimball is the statistician.
"I'm a political researcher that collects data," he said, adding that the biggest argument of the Founding Fathers was if "you're going to toss power [to elect officials] out to the mob, you better make sure they have access to information."
And that's Project Vote Smart's mission.
"We're becoming this one little place where it doesn't matter what your politics are, where you're getting factual information," Kimball said. "We don't taint it or twist it in any way. We simply provide the facts."
The integrity of Project Vote Smart's research is ensured in several ways, Kimball said, including checking politics at the door -- "so people don't know whether they're working next to a libertarian or a liberal" -- and board members bringing someone of an opposite political view with them.
Project Vote Smart's founding board members were former Presidents Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, and Gerald Ford, a Republican; former Sens. Eugene McGovern, a Democrat, and Barry Goldwater, his Republican counterpart; former Rep. Geraldine Ferraro, a Democrat, and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. Kimball tested the political waters, as well, as the Democratic nominee for the Senate seat Goldwater vacated.
Lucy Wilson Benson, a former president of the League of Women Voters who was a founding member still serves on the board, along with attorneys Jon Trachta and Dan O'Neill, community activist Susan Brandes and several others.
Project Vote Smart also doesn't accept funding from corporations, political action committees or any other organization that supports or opposes candidates or issues, he said. It relies on individual contributions and foundation grants.
It's such a simple concept: collecting factual data and putting it in one place so anyone can find out a candidate's position, contributors and voting record -- even employment histories -- that isn't spun or tweaked along the campaign trail.
Candidates who manipulate information ultimately will lose, Kimball said.
"Technology is going to kick their butts in the end."