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The Early Years of Vote Smart

In his book "The American Quest," American historian Clinton Rossiter identified the “values and practices of democracy, constitutionalism, and individualism [as] indispensable ingredients of a humane way of life.” Rossiter is quick to point out that these practices and values are also “like fire and the sword: they may destroy the society in which they function.” And yet without these forces, “decent, self-respecting, modern” people would surely turn away from society.


Decent, self-respecting, and modern people founded Vote Smart in the late 1980s and reflected so many of the values that Rossiter lifted up. Carter, Ford, Goldwater, Kimball, Leach, Proxmire, and others all came together believing in those values. What they also believed in was that decent, self-respecting, and modern people needed a voice, a place to turn when democracy is threatened.


The early days of the project focused on a test during the 1990 congressional elections in North Carolina and Nebraska. With $40,000 and the help of volunteers and students, the voters in each state were given factual information on candidates in five basic areas: their biography, how they are funding their campaign, how they are evaluated by special interest groups, how they stand on important issues, and how they voted in previous jobs. A simple bank of phones and an 800-telephone number was how information was shared. The test proved a huge hit, overwhelming the phones and proving that tens of thousands of people were hungry for this new service that hadn’t even really been established yet.


The test meant a huge staff would be needed to support scaling up Vote Smart for a national election in 1992. Oregon State University offered to house our operations and provide student interns to build out this new system. Even though we covered just 1,350 congressional candidates that year, 450 students and volunteers were still insufficient to meet the demand of over 200,000 callers on the hotline that year. In fact, Vote Smart still has the reputation for being a small little organization that brought down Northwestern Bell, the regional telephone company, when 35,000 calls were made in just 10 seconds following a feature on us with PBS NewsHour that year.


1992 Election Day in Vote Smart's Oregon State office
1992 Election Day in Vote Smart's Oregon State office.

In preparation for 1994 and 1996, and with the help of Michael Dukakis, a second office was opened at Northeastern University. That’s where my story at Vote Smart began. I was just completing a master’s degree at Boston College and came across this great opportunity to serve democracy without being a part of the endless partisan battles.


The second office at Northeastern was as humble as the one at Oregon State. Both were in basements and neither allowed for much personal space. Desks were butted up against one another and networking cables seemed to be everywhere, a setup that did not promote reliability given that the connections between cables were notoriously prone to disconnect at the slightest nudge.

Group photo at Northeastern University in 1996.
Group photo at Northeastern University in 1996.

It was during this time that I also got to surf the internet for the first time. Elise Senter was a colleague that was taking time off for a few days and she needed to school her stand-in (me) for downloading a daily update on legislation from Washington. I took my yellow pad of paper and pen to the front office and proceeded to write-up a step-by-step guide to surfing. To say that internet surfing proved to be a loose parallel to real surfing would be an understatement. Still, we were harnessing all the technology we could muster in the service of the facts at the core of our democracy. Between the buggy homemade network cables, the fax machines, dial-up FTP connections into partner organizations and a lot of in-house direct mail, we were cobbling together a persuasive operation.


The beauty of the Northeastern campus, the Museum of Fine Arts and Frederick Law Olmstead’s Emerald Necklace of parks just across the street provided plenty of antidotes to our subterranean work on behalf of the American voter. You could also buy bleacher seats at Fenway Park for $11 and because they were still not quite World Series contenders, the staff could just about always make walk-up purchases after a long day at work.


The early days of Vote Smart had low levels of glamor but high levels of camaraderie, low pay but high satisfaction, low cynicism but high expectations. Looking back now over twenty-five years later, I believe we have kept the best of Vote Smart and improved upon so much of what held us back those early years. Our internship programs in Oregon and Boston relied exclusively on those students that went to the local university. Today, we recruit nationally from populations and backgrounds that we never would have brought into the Vote Smart family. Our staff still provide amazing ideas and commitment to our mission, in ways that we still struggle to recognize with the level of appreciation and support they deserve. Our university partners still stand shoulder to shoulder with us, committed as never before to fighting the threats to our democracy. Drake University, where our main facilities are located today, even included public democracy as a main pillar of their current capital campaign.


Photo of Vote Smart's staff, March 2022
Vote Smart's staff during President Kyle Dell's visit to the Des Moines office in March 2022.

To be sure, in Vote Smart’s early years, no one knew if people would use what we were building. While we have largely answered that question with a resounding “yes”, our work in 2023 and beyond focuses on expanding the reach of our work to those that need it most. If our mission is to serve “all Americans” what does that mean for how we recruit staff, how we support interns, and how we share our message through different social media platforms? These are tools, like Rossiter suggested, that can be both fire and sword–as powerful in creation as in destruction. Our 30-year history suggests we have benefited from creating more than we destroy and lifting up those that need help even as we fight against those that would disempower and rob us of the democracy at the heart of a humane life.


This was written by Vote Smart's President Kyle Dell, who succeeded Richard Kimball, the organization's founding president, in March 2022. He had served the organization as the vice president of the founding board since 2010 and also worked on Vote Smart's staff during the 1996 presidential election cycle. Prior to his appointment to president, Dr. Dell was an accomplished dean and professor of political science at Guilford College since 2003. You can learn more about Dr. Dell by reading his biography here.

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