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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.

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 for legislative issues on the ACLU’s national agenda. 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.

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. 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. 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 download 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

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.

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 option on the left-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.

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, Open Society Foundations,and the Rockefeller Family Fund. 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 by presenting controversial issues in a straightforward, nonpartisan, and primarily pro-con format.”

ProCon.org presents issues such as “School Uniforms” or “Death Penalty” by giving a brief overview of the controversy, then framing the key question — “Should students have to wear school uniforms?” — and breaking it down into 10 underlying debates — “Conformity or Individuality” and “Safety,” 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