Cut Through Political Rhetoric and Track Elections Online

From Wired How-To Wiki


Whether you’re wired to the left or right, make sure you’re getting the best facts and stats. Photo by sylvar/flickr/CC

Ah, elections. The theater of democracy. At this point we’re aware that a certain amount of rhetoric and hand-waving accompanies the proceedings. So to make an informed vote come November, we have to cut through the noise. This is not as daunting a task as it once was — or as some think it still is. While the internet allows politicians to turn up the rhetorical volume, it also allows us voters myriad smarter ways to pay attention.

In this how-to we take a look at doing just that, and explore how to cast a vote for the candidate best suited to serve your needs over the next two, four or six years.

This how-to was written by Caleb Garling, who writes about tech for Wired Enterprise. He secretly loves a good circus and, in related news, is a closet political junkie.

Keeping Track of the Presidential Race

The most important element of any election is (or should be) knowing where the candidates stand on the issues. Sites like GovTrack, Project Vote Smart and OpenCongress do a great job tallying how everyone in Washington voted on legislation that crossed their floor or desk.

As the presidential race heats up, you can tune into just about any major news site — CNN, MSNBC or FoxNews — for up-to-date poll numbers. Each of these sets of numbers should usually be taken with a grain of salt. Some sites like Real Clear Politics (RCP) will begin aggregating all of these polls to make a meta poll of sorts which is likely more trustworthy as a predictor of the outcome. During the primaries, RCP also does a great job of packaging up all the theoretical races (i.e., One primary candidate against the incumbent).

But you’ll also want to know what the candidates are up to and you can be sure that their Twitter or Facebook page will be updated with exactly what state and what stump they’re standing on. (If a candidate has rejected the use of social media in his or her campaign, that’s also something to think about.) For the most comprehensive approach, like and follow all of the candidates — even ones you don’t think you’d vote for — so you can gain the broadest picture on the election.

Fact Check

No matter how you tend to vote, you’ve undoubtedly heard a claim by a candidate that made you say “…really?” Any time that happens to you, be sure to give the folks at FactCheck.org and PolitiFact.com a few days to sort through the claims and clarify how much truthiness was involved in the claim. Because of the popularity of such sites, newspapers like the Washington Post have also opened up their fact checking files to the public.

Also, to be a diligent voter, be sure to double-check these sites, even when it’s your candidate with the suspect statements. Then act on the clarifications.

Find Out Where the Money Comes From

There is money in Washington, you may have heard. For any election, it’s crucial to know what hands feed your candidate. That will inform his or her decisions later. We see this with nationally reviled bills like SOPA, where the members of congress that supported the bill had received a ton of money from the recording and media industry. Sometimes, it’s really that simple. So give your candidates a hard look on sites like OpenSecrets.org and decide if you want that kind of corporate, union or special interest influence whispering in your now-elected representative’s ear.

Keeping Tabs on the Congressional Races

As far as projections, a few sites do a good job of making smart arguments on why the numbers might not be telling the whole story. Nate Silver runs a blog called FiveThirtyEight that provides a complete and often surprisingly different analysis of the poll numbers using intricate statistical methods (not hope and bias, like many others).

Like the presidential race, the most important piece of any election is knowing where a candidate stands on an issue. Sites like GovTrack, Project Vote Smart and OpenCongress do a great job tallying how every member of Congress voted on each piece of legislation that hit the floor.

Keeping Tabs on the Local Races

How exactly to pay attention to your local races will vary by whether you’re in the Big Apple or the Boon Docks. But you can start with the basics by tracking your local paper and their website each day. Hopefully your candidates have some sort of social media presence that you can hook into also. As mentioned, if the candidate applies, GovTrack, Project Vote Smart and OpenCongress will display their voting histories.

Keeping Tabs on the Debates

Knowing when the debates are happening shouldn’t be hard. Just check any major news site or the candidate’s website. But you may want to watch the back-and-forth with other people to get their perspective on the finer points of the discussion and to gain other observations on the candidate. Organize your own party using all the standard party planning tools like Facebook, Evite or, if you want to get fancy, Paperless Post.

Keep tabs on grassroot ticketing sites like Eventbrite to see whether they start featuring more “debate watching” events as the elections get closer.

This page was last modified 22:55, 3 April 2012 by amyzimmerman. Based on work by howto_admin.

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