Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Guest Blogger: Brianna Zichettella

The Final Frontier: 
Political Honesty and the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness

Great Divide Ranch, home of the non-partisan Project Vote Smart where Brianna
completed a 10-week internship in Summer 2016. 
     Project Vote Smart calls itself the most important organization you have never heard of. And in some   ways, that is true. It was founded in 1992 and housed at Oregon State University. Seven years later, the program moved out to the Great Divide Ranch in southwestern Montana. Its mission statement is to collect and disseminate information on those holding and running for political offices in America. This research covers all levels of government from local to federal and stretches across several different types of information. In an effort to create comprehensive information about America’s electoral process, Vote Smart brings interns and paid staff to Montana. They make up the workforce of several departments ranging from candidate biographies to campaign finance information. And, as promised by Vote Smart’s slogan, very few people have heard of it. I experienced this first hand when I found myself constantly explaining to family and friends exactly what I was doing on the other side of the country.
Moose Lake, at the edge of the Great Divide Ranch
During ten weeks between May and August, I was one of fifty interns living and working at Vote Smart’s Montana headquarters. Having come from a bucolic hometown and attending college in suburban Amherst, spending the summer at the near-wilderness location was unlike anything I had ever done before. The ranch itself is situated at the edge of the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness at an elevation of 6000 feet. The closest town, Philipsburg, is a forty-five minute drive, and the closest airport is about two hours to the east. However, the ranch’s isolated location does not mean that the interns are lacking in things to do. Vote Smart’s property touches the edge of Moose Lake, and the organization owns a dock and several boats. Additionally, several trailheads can be found down the road from the ranch, and most can be completed in an afternoon. A particularly memorable trail – dubbed Huff Puff by a few decades of Vote Smart interns - switchbacks up an Anaconda-Pintler foothill. The aptly-named trail ends about 1000 feet higher than the ranch and features an amazing view of the Pintler Mountain Range. 
Trailways surrounding the Project Vote Smart Camp

But my time in Montana was spent doing more than hiking and spending time on the lake. Over the course of ten weeks, each of Vote Smart’s interns spends 40 hours per week contributing to the organization’s extensive research. During my internship, I was assigned to Vote Smart’s Political Courage Test department. To attempt to provide the public with information about political candidates, the organization sends out Political Courage questionnaires to everyone running for office. This test poses fifteen yes-or-no questions across various policy areas and gives politicians the opportunity to elaborate on their responses. It is the department’s responsibility to send out these letters and post candidate responses on the Vote Smart website. Unfortunately, a very small number of candidates respond to the surveys, and those that do often return only partially completed tests. Because of this, my main obligation in the department was to research candidate websites and speeches to extrapolate their answers to the questions.
Brianna, far left, and fellow interns enjoying the outdoor activities. Interns work on a variety of
projects, collecting information that assists voters with reliable, non-partisan information. 
The work was engaging, if repetitive. Throughout the ten weeks I researched congressional candidates across the country. Some had professionally designed websites with comprehensive issue positions and governance plans. Others had typed a few sentences into WordPress and called it a day. However, the common thread linking candidates from Alabama to Wyoming was that this information is not well publicized. It usually is not too difficult to find, but the process of finding the most relevant information can take a while. The average American often does not have the time or inclination to conduct comprehensive research on all of a candidate’s positions. That is the reason Vote Smart exists. The research done by interns and staff is aggregated on Vote Smart’s website; one place with everything a voter would need to make an informed decision. Every candidate has a page that lists biographical information, public statements, voting records, submitted or extrapolated PCT answers, special interest support, and other relevant information. Considering the controversy and polarization of this election cycle, this kind of data is more important than ever. As said by Thomas Jefferson, a well-informed electorate is a prerequisite for democracy. In 2016, it seems that voters will need all the resources at their disposal to parse through rampant misinformation about their candidates and electoral process. In my opinion, a resource like Vote Smart would be invaluable.
The compound where Project Vote Smart staff and interns engage
in voter education. 
This summer was an extremely rewarding experience, and I am glad to have had the opportunity to contribute to increasing political clarity in America. However, I could not have worked through the ins and outs of completing a successful internship by myself. I would like to thank Dr. Lisa Parshall and the History and Political Science Department for all the help and support I received during the application process and throughout the summer. I would also like to thank the staff and interns at Vote Smart. It was great to work with such a wonderful group of people. Thank you for making my ten weeks a truly amazing experience; it was absolutely one of the best summers of my life. 
The author, Brianna Zichettella is majoring in Political Science
with a minor in  Political Communications.

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