Trying to educate voters is a tricky business. Both the provider and recipients of candidate information can make assumptions about that information that can lead to wrong conclusions. Hopefully, this explanation will help as you consider my recent commentaries and look through the assortment of voter education materials that have been provided through the organizations I lead.
Some wanted to know how to “translate” last week’s commentary about how much personal money the Republican gubernatorial candidates gave to support the pro-life Amendment 1 campaign that spanned the latter part of 2013 until the vote in November 2014.
I try to be very precise in what I write, and last week’s commentary was a disclosure of objective, verifiable information related to a public, pro-life policy issue on which any of the four candidates could have been involved and could have been involved in a way that allowed for an apples-to-apples comparison.
Clearly, I take pro-life rhetoric with a grain of salt and look to see what candidates have done on policy issues in which they were or could have been involved, but I tried to leave it up to readers to decide how much weight to give to each candidate’s contribution or lack thereof and how each candidate’s decision in that regard compares to the millions they are willing to spend to be governor. That’s why it did not go so far as to endorse anyone.
Translating Private Actions to Public Positions
With respect to the Republican gubernatorial primary, some wanted to know why I didn’t consider or disclose a candidate’s support for local pregnancy resource centers. Great observation and here’s why.
First, contributions and other forms of support for crisis pregnancy centers is not public information, and I wanted to share only that which could be verified.
Second, support for pregnancy resource centers may but does not always translate into a willingness to take a public position on a pro-life policy issue that will make political supporters of abortion mad. I could give you examples of that, but given the soon-to-be “has been” status of the two individuals I have in mind, there is no point in impugning them. By way of comparison, think about how many pastors appreciate pregnancy resource centers but wouldn’t say anything from the pulpit about Amendment 1. Support for such organizations is good and worth considering; just don’t assume too much about it.
What Does ‘100%’ on an Incumbent Scorecard Mean?
Family Action of Tennessee, the legislative arm of The Family Action Council of Tennessee (FACT), scores incumbents on a number of votes. The “scores” represent nothing more than how that incumbent voted on those issues.
One constituent assumed that a 100% score constituted an endorsement of that candidate. It does not, and you’ll notice that the term “endorsement” is not used.
The score also does not reflect whether the candidate provided any leadership on the legislation scored or grudgingly voted the “right way.” Again, we try to stick to what is objective and verifiable.
The scores also do not speak to the candidate’s cumulative record over several terms, and they sure don’t purport to say anything about the incumbent’s views on issues outside the scope of Family Action of Tennessee’s priorities, which focus on the structure and integrity of marital relationship and the family unit, life, and religious liberty. That scope excludes, for example, the “gas tax.”
Why We Scored the Bills We Scored
One constituent noted that it should have been easy for a conservative incumbent to get 100% on the legislation we scored. I couldn’t agree more, so that does say something to conservative voters about those who didn’t get 100%.
But picking legislation to score is tricky. Most of the controversial bills dealing with marriage, family, life, and religious liberty (which, again, excludes the “gas tax”) don’t make it through the committee system and most go to only one or two different committees. Consequently, many legislators cannot be scored on anything but bills that make it to the House or Senate floor. And, unfortunately, those that make it to the floor are not too controversial.
Another problem is that some bills on these subjects get amended in committee in a manner that weakens an otherwise good bill or “improves” a bad bill just enough that it passes through the committee system. Where we can, we score votes in committee, but that can be problematic because the incumbent may vote “wrong” in committee and vote “right” on the floor and vice versa.
Trying to explain the mixed message these inconsistent votes convey can cause even more confusion among voters unfamiliar with the process. Consequently, we sometimes decide not to score those bills lest the “bad guy” in committee winds up looking like the “good guy” on the floor or vice versa.
Writing candidate surveys for our voter guides is tricky because I’ve learned that using less precise, more generic language makes the issue easier for voters to understand, but gives candidates too much wiggle room to say one thing and do another. For example, many candidates would answer “yes” to this rather straightforward question: “Do you support vouchers or opportunity scholarship for parents to send a child to the school of their choice?” But then they will find something in a bill on that subject that, to their minds, justifies voting “no” while still saying they support “the concept.”
Excuses I Don’t Want to Hear
The flip side, as I noted, is that sometimes our voter guide questions seem obtuse to voters and their purpose a bit unclear. But with respect to the candidates, I don’t have much sympathy for those who say they were undecided or answered “wrong” because they “didn’t understand the question.”
First, candidates are specifically told to contact us if they have any questions about what is being asked. Candidates who won’t “dig” a bit to make sure they understand the issue at hand will not dig when elected either.
Second, one of the skills a legislator needs is the ability to read and understand a bill without always having someone there to explain it. Two weeks ago, a friend told me that a legislator confessed to him that he didn’t know that an admittedly bad provision was in the bill that the legislator had sponsored!
Trying to provide helpful information to voters isn’t easy, but the feedback we receive helps us know how to be more helpful in the future.
Now that you know the “skinny” on our processes behind our voter education materials, be sure to check out our voter guides and gubernatorial videos at TNVoterGuide.org and view the incumbent scorecards on the Family Action of Tennessee website.
David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. Read David’s complete bio.
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