Ballot Builder has a ways to go's service a nice try, but no cigar

Sept. 23, 2006

by David Kopel

A new online feature of the Rocky Mountain News,called Ballot Builder, aims to help voters learn about candidates and ballot issues. It's a nice idea, but it's got a very long way to go to be really useful.

You start off by registering a username and supplying your address. The Web site uses your address to determine which election districts you live in. But Ballot Builder doesn't make it easy. When I supplied my office address, in Jefferson County, Ballot Builder said that I could be in one of two congressional districts, one of four state Senate districts, and so on. The districts are identified only by number (not by the incumbent's name, or the general region of the district), so anyone who has not already memorized his U.S. House, state Senate, and state House district numbers might think he has to guess. In fact, if you click on the maps provided, Ballot Builder will identify the correct district. But it's not obvious that's what you're supposed to do.

Ballot Builder then asks your opinion on various policy issues, and on this year's statewide initiatives and referenda.

One question is simply wrong: "The Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision established a woman's constitutional right to an abortion, at least in the first three months of pregnancy. Would you like to see the Supreme Court overturn its Roe v. Wade decision?"

In fact, Roe v. Wade, along with its companion case of Doe v. Bolton, established an abortion right throughout pregnancy, from conception until birth. Since 1973, no state law which has attempted to ban (or strongly limit) abortions because they take place in the second or third trimester has been found constitutional.

Some questions are written at much too high a level of generality. For example: "Do you think the executive branch should be able to obtain wiretaps of American citizens who are suspected of having ties to terrorists without a court order?" Almost no one these days claims that the executive should be able to conduct warrantless wiretaps for citizens suspected of involvement in domestic terrorist groups (such as animal liberation or neo-Nazis). The dispute is about international phone calls involving possible contact with foreign terrorists. If - like many people - you're against the first type of wiretaps and for the second type, it's impossible to answer the question accurately.

But the worst problem with the questions is how they are used. Ballot Builder matches your responses against the responses received from candidates, and ranks candidates in each race by the percentage with which they agree with you.

Unfortunately, many of the questions have nothing to do with the relevant office. For example, it would be foolish for you to vote for state or county treasurer, or the State Board of Education, based on whether candidates agree with you on issue such as withdrawal from Iraq, wiretaps, preserving Roe v. Wade, or the death penalty.

In assigning a percentage for a State Board of Education candidate, Ballot Builder gives education questions the exact same weight as questions that have nothing to do with a board member's responsibilities. The rankings for many other offices have similar problems.

Ballot Builder also aims to provide voters with information about all the ballot issues. The campaign finance links for each issue are very useful; for example, I found out that Amendment 42 (to raise the minimum wage and index it for inflation), had only eight donors, and that they had made an average contribution of about $31,000.

On the other hand, the information about the substance of each issue is extremely sparse, consisting of nothing more than the official text, a short summary, and official notes about fiscal and local government impact. At the least, each ballot issue should include links to some of the Newsarticles about that issue.

Ballot Builder 2006 should be considered a public beta version of an online voter guide. Perhaps by 2008 it will be a great tool for voters, but currently, the utility is very limited.

On the Sept. 12 edition of ABC's The View,co-host Rosie O'Donnell stated: "Radical Christianity is just as threatening as radical Islam in a country like America where we have separation of church and state." As a result, U.S. Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, R-Colo., has been urging her opponent, Angie Paccione, to return a $2,100 campaign contribution from O'Donnell. Shaun Kenney of The Denver Postreported the controversy last Sunday by writing that "Musgrave's campaign contends the talk-show host made parallels between 'radical Christianity' and 'radical Islam' on a Sept. 11 television show."

Besides getting the date wrong, and failing to identify the TV program, Kenney wrongly used the word "contends," making it seem as if Musgrave's claim about O'Donnell were unverified or uncertain when in fact O'Donnell made her statement to an audience of millions.  

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