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Critical Thinking Resources for Voting Issues

Alliance for Justice

The Alliance for Justice describes itself as “a national association of environmental, civil rights, mental health, women’s, children’s and consumer advocacy organizations” that works to “advance the cause of justice for all Americans, strengthen the public interest community’s ability to influence public policy, and foster the next generation of advocates.” Founded in 1979 by liberal activist Nan Aron, the alliance developed out of an earlier organization, the Council for Public Interest Law. Its board includes representatives from abortion-rights groups, unions and civil rights groups.

The alliance's most prominent effort is its Judicial Selection Project. Started in 1985, the project has conducted research on and advocated for and against federal judicial nominations. Through this project, the alliance has played a significant role in opposing conservative Republican judicial nominations, including Robert Bork’s failed nomination to the Supreme Court in 1987.

On its main website, the organization offers a series of reports on issues ranging from judicial nominations to campaign finance and gun laws. Additionally, the site offers profiles of nominees to the federal judiciary, as well as descriptions of issues before the courts.

Comments: The organization's reports, though one-sided, are thorough and well-documented.

Political Leanings: Liberal

American Civil Liberties Union

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the organization, founded in 1920, is the “nation’s guardian of liberty, working daily in courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties that the Constitution and laws of the United States guarantee everyone in this country.” The ACLU consists of two entities, the main one, which primarily engages in legislative lobbying, and the ACLU Foundation, which focuses on the ACLU’s litigation. The group’s agenda is broad, including such issues as free speech, civil rights, capital punishment and many more.

With nearly 200 staff attorneys, more than 500,000 members and supporters and grants and donations that in 2007 totaled $32 million, the ACLU is the largest organization of its kind in the United States. The group has a presence in all 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

At ACLU.org, the organization’s main website, visitors can search (by issue and region) for legislative issues on the ACLU’s national agenda by looking at its Legislative Update. The group’s Congressional Scorecard provides tallies of how lawmakers voted on legislation that was a priority, either for or against, for the group. The site also offers summaries and updates of ACLU court cases. And at ACLU Multimedia, visitors can watch videos on various issues the organization has been involved in, including one that features interviews with former Guantanamo detainees.

The ACLU’s advocacy for First Amendment rights, equal protection, due process and the right to privacy is considered to be well to the left on the political spectrum. However, its dedication to First Amendment principles sometimes leads to its adoption of controversial positions. In 1977, for instance, it filed suit seeking to have several town ordinances in Skokie, Ill., thrown off the books: the laws barred marches by neo-Nazis. (The ACLU won that case the next year.)

Comments: The ACLU's positions usually, though not always, line up with those on left of the political spectrum.

Political Leanings: Liberal

FactCheck.org

According to its website, FactCheck.org is a “nonpartisan, nonprofit ‘consumer advocate’ for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics.” Its staff monitors factual accuracy in American politics, looking at what’s being said in TV ads, debates, speeches, interviews and the like.

The website has three main outlets for its work: Articles, the FactCheck Wire (for shorter items or ones of less national interest) and Ask FactCheck (in which the group’s staff members answer questions sent in by readers, often about chain e-mails on political subjects). The group debunks myths, falsehoods and exaggerations by politicians and outside groups involved in election campaigns and public policy debates. Examples of FactCheck.org’s work include stories about misinformation spread during public policy debates such as the one on overhauling the health care system, and inaccurate claims made during election campaigns such as John McCain’s position on Medicare or Barack Obama’s birthplace. The group’s work is often cited by other media organizations.

FactCheck.org is funded by, and is a project of, the Annenberg Public Policy Center, which was established by the Annenberg Foundation with a $20 million endowment in 1993. The Annenberg Foundation also made additional grants to support FactCheck.org’s work. The APPC accepts no funding from business corporations, labor unions, political parties, lobbying organizations or individuals. In 2010, FactCheck.org began accepting donations from individual members of the public. Its does not accept any funds from corporations, unions, partisan organizations or advocacy groups.

Political Leanings: None

Federal Election Commission

This independent government agency was created in 1974 in the wake of the Watergate scandals to regulate campaign spending and police requirements for disclosing federal campaign money. The six commissioners are evenly split — three Democrats and three Republicans. The FEC collects and publishes reports of receipts and expenditures by candidates for president, Senate and House, and from political parties and federal political action committees.

The FEC’s website offers a full compendium of the laws and regulations governing campaigns and elections. The site also features a
page with quick answers to common questions about the FEC and election law. The FEC offers the ability to search the disclosure database within the sub-page campaign finance reports and data, or to search the reports of funds raised and spent that candidates must file with the FEC. Other sites, such as the Center for Responsive Politics’ opensecrets.org, historically have been easier to navigate, but fec.gov is improving. Official vote results for presidential and congressional elections are also available on the website.

Comments: The FEC staff does a good job of providing Internet access to the information the agency collects. It's worth noting that the FEC
is the repository of most, but not all, reports about money raised and spent in federal campaigns: certain independent nonprofit groups report instead to the Internal Revenue Service.

Leadership Conference on Civil Rights

The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights says it is “the nation’s premier civil rights coalition,” and it has “coordinated the national legislative campaign on behalf of every major civil rights law since 1957.” It was founded in 1950 by A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, Roy Wilkins of the NAACP and Arnold Aronson of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council. Today, the conference has more than 180 member organizations, including People for the American Way, AARP, the American Civil Liberties Union, the AFL-CIO and constituent unions, the NAACP, National Council of La Raza, the Human Rights Campaign and the National Organization for Women.

Its website offers reports on such issues as fair housing and the status of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. In addition to organizing various civil and voting rights campaigns, the conference is one of the main groups monitoring judicial nominations from the liberal point of view. The website for that campaign offers articles and op-eds, fact sheets, and profiles of current and past nominees. The conference also provides overviews of civil rights cases on the Supreme Court’s docket each term.

Comments: Most material on this site has a strong liberal, pro-civil rights slant, though with that in mind it can be useful.

Political Leanings: Liberal

Librarians’ Internet Index

Librarians’ Internet Index is a compendium of links and descriptions of websites that have been selected by a team of librarians. Publicly funded by the states of California and Washington, the site includes more than 20,000 entries that focus on a host of topics, from politics and legal issues to film and sports. LII is produced by six paid consultants who are assisted by more than 40 librarian contributors.

Started by a reference librarian in the early 1990s, LII is now under the management of the Peninsula Library System, a consortium of public and community college libraries in California. In 2002, the site launched a more limited partnership with Washington State Library, and it offers numerous websites of interest to those two states. Most of LII’s money comes from the California State Library, but site managers have been exploring other funding sources.

Users can subscribe to a free weekly newsletter that highlights various websites. It’s also possible to search the site or browse the links by 14 main topic areas and hundreds of subtopics. Visitors can narrow each list of sites by clicking on additional topics. The websites that LII features must meet various criteria, which include whether information is available for free and whether it’s credible.

Comments: LII is a valuable tool for researching any number of topics. The sheer volume of vetted websites is impressive. The amount of material, however, sometimes leads to rather eclectic lists of sites for a given topic and some misclassification. Specific searches yield the best results.

Political Leanings: None

National Conference of State Legislatures

A bipartisan organization for state, commonwealth and territorial legislators and their staffs, the National Conference of State Legislatures “provides research, technical assistance and opportunities for policymakers to exchange ideas on the most pressing state issues.” The organization advocates the interests of state governments.

The NCSL’s website contains information about the issues state governments are facing, such as education, environmental protection, transportation, criminal justice and state-tribal relations. Visitors to the site can access various reports, including summaries of which states enacted certain types of legislation on, for example, gambling or immigration. The site also contains information on state elections and election laws.

The “GrassCatcher” page is a daily roundup of state and policy news. Visitors can listen to NCSL’s podcasts and request a personalized daily or weekly e-mail on specified policy topics.

Comments: The NCLS website is a good resource for information on the status of state laws on various subjects.

National Institute on Money in State Politics (Follow the Money)

The National Institute on Money in State Politics is a nonpartisan organization “dedicated to accurate, comprehensive and unbiased documentation and research on campaign finance at the state level.” Founded in 1999, the institute creates and maintains publicly accessible databases (with more than 12 million records), containing information about campaign funding at the state level. It uses this information to assess the influence of money in public policy.

Visitors to the site can “follow the money” by using the “Search Our Data” option on the right-hand side of the home page. It’s possible to search for political contributions by state and year, candidate or committee, and contributor or special interests. The website’s research and reports section contains information on trends in political contributions, including the donating habits of special interest groups. The data snapshots section includes quick summaries of the institute’s findings, and an interactive U.S. map includes information on the number of races in each state.

Beyond its free offerings, the institute sells data, such as the contributions received by every candidate in a certain state in an election cycle or the contributions made by a certain entity. The organization also provides customized reports, for a fee. The institute receives funding from private foundations including the Carnegie Corporation of New York, Ford Foundation, JEHT Foundation, Joyce Foundation, Open Society Institute and the Pew Charitable Trusts. It’s also supported by data sales to researchers and newspapers, contracts for custom research, and individual contributions.

Comments: This is a good companion website to opensecrets.org, which examines campaign spending at the federal level.

Political Leanings: None

ProCon.org

This independent, nonprofit website lays out the arguments on both sides of a host of controversial issues. Its mission statement: “We promote critical thinking, education, and informed citizenship.”

ProCon.org presents issues such as “Sports and Drugs” or “Death Penalty” by giving a brief overview of the controversy, then framing the key question — “Should performance-enhancing drugs (such as steroids) be accepted in sports?” — and breaking it down into 10 underlying debates — “Athletes as Role Models” and “Sportsmanship,” for instance. Quotes from various sources on each side of the issue help readers understand the main points of contention and what the arguments are in support of each perspective.

The nonpartisan site was founded in 2004 by businessman Steve Markoff and his wife, Jadwiga.

Comments: ProCon.org is unusual in that it provides the arguments on both sides of an issue, along with sources for those who want to follow up further.

Political Leanings: None

Project Vote Smart

Project Vote Smart is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that gathers and organizes information on candidates for political office. Vote Smart seeks to discover where candidates stand on any number of issues by scouring public voting records, public statements and biographical information, by monitoring ratings of candidates given by more than 100 competing special-interest groups, and by sending its own detailed questionnaires to candidates through its National Political Awareness Test.

By simply entering their ZIP code, visitors to the site can pull up information on their elected officials and candidates. The site also allows individuals to search specifically for any politician’s voting record, campaign finances, and biographical and contact information.

Additionally, the site compiles rankings of officials done by various interest groups such as the National Rifle Association, the NAACP and the AFL-CIO. There is also a database of officials’ speeches and statements searchable by keyword.

Comments: The website is well organized and easy to use. Unfortunately, many candidates decline to fill out Vote Smart's questionnaires.

Political Leanings: None

Wikipedia

Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia where articles may be written or edited by any user who creates a free account. It offers a vast amount of easily accessible information; the English version contained more than 3.2 million articles as of March 2009. But it can’t guarantee accuracy and sometimes has been dramatically wrong.

Individuals who write and edit articles for Wikipedia are volunteers. In theory, they bring a vast collective knowledge to bear and quickly discover and correct any biased or inaccurate entries. Advocates say this bottom-up approach produces a product that rivals traditional, top-down encyclopedias in which articles are written by individual experts chosen by professional editors. Indeed, a study in the December 15, 2005, journal Nature reported that in a sample of 42 entries on scientific topics, its experts found 162 errors in Wikipedia compared with 123 errors in Britannica. However, Britannica later challenged the Nature study as “fatally flawed” and filled with “flagrant errors.”

The weakness of Wikipedia’s anybody-can-edit policy was demonstrated dramatically when a false biographical entry on John Seigenthaler Sr., former editorial director of USA Today, went uncorrected for four months in 2005. It claimed Seigenthaler had a role in the assassinations of former President John Kennedy and his brother Robert. Those false claims were the work of a 38-year-old employee of a Nashville delivery service, Brian Chase, who had posted the libels as a joke and who later apologized to Seigenthaler. Numerous other instances of false Wikipedia entries have come to light since.

Wikipedia’s own founder, Jimmy Wales, publicly cautions students against citing it as an authoritative source. In June 2006, at a conference sponsored by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, he said that he gets about 10 e-mails a week saying, “Please help me. I got an F on my paper because I cited Wikipedia.” Wales said those comments make him think to himself: “For God sake, you’re in college; don’t cite the encyclopedia.”

Wikipedia is “pretty good,” Wales said, “but you have to be careful with it. It’s good enough knowledge, depending on what your purpose is.”

Comments: Wikipedia is a useful resource when beginning research on an unfamiliar topic, but it's not always reliable. Information needs to be checked against original sources, but this is often difficult due to a frequent lack of footnotes.

Political Leanings: None