The 51st State: The State of Online: Tech Tools for the American Voter and the 2008 Congressional Elections

Article excerpt

Democracy is not a spectator sport. IT'S AN ACTION GAME.

So what do you want to know about your congressional representative or senator? Or even about representatives and senators out of your district or state? Pick up any newspaper (online or hardcopy) these days and you will find the presidential horse race dominating the daily headlines. Who's ahead? Who's behind? Who triumphed at the latest debate? Who tanked? Whose war chest brims over? Who's down to his or her last dime?

We know differently. We do have a president to elect--and we hope that the first article in this series ("The Presidential Campaign 2008: Candidates and News Sources" [http:// www.infotoday.com/searcher/nov07/Gordon-Murnane_51st State.pdf]), which appeared in the November/December 2007 issue of Searcher, is helping you reach an informed voting decision. Nevertheless, we voters also have 435 representatives and 33 senators to elect come November 2008. And we know that the party that controls Congress can shape, endorse, or stymie any political agenda set by the president of the United States. President Bush enjoyed Republican support of both houses of Congress for the first 6 years of his presidency and most of his legislative agenda became law. When the Democrats took back the House and the Senate in the November 2006 elections, President Bush's legislative agenda hit a road block. Even with the change in control of Congress in 2006, 94% of the incumbents for the House were returned, and 79% of the incumbents for the Senate were reelected. (See the set of charts from OpenSecrets.org that tracks reelection rates for the House and Senate from 1964: 2006 House [http://www.opensecrets.org/bigpicture/reelect. asp?Cycle=2006&chamb=H]; Senate [http://www. opensecrets.org/bigpicture/reelect.asp?Cycle= 2006&chamb=S].) Joshua Taberer's GovTrack.us also provides a useful graphic that displays the incumbent advantage [http://www.govtrack.us/ congress/repstats.xpd].

Compare those numbers with the current polls on congressional job approval and you might be surprised.

The Democratic sweep in the 2006 congressional by-election demonstrated the American public's lack of regard for President Bush's performance, but the public seemed even less impressed with the efforts of Congress. PollingReport.com provides a useful snapshot of congressional job approval ratings [http://www.pollingreport.com/ CongJob.htm]. In all the major national polls (CBS, CBS-NYT, Fox Opinion Dynamics, Quinnipiac, L.A. Times/Bloomberg, CNN/Opinion Research Corp, NPR, Gallup, APIpsos, ABC/Washington Post), Congress polls consistently in the low 20s (see Figure 1 below).

There appears to be a big disconnect in the perceived quality of the work done in Congress--approval rates in the low 20s and the rate of return for incumbents--House in the low 90 percents, Senate in the low 80s. Incumbents clearly have a tremendous advantage over challengers for one reason or another, but ultimately the responsibility for who we elect comes down to us--the voting public. As information professionals, we can help voters and potential voters learn as much as they can about the candidates running for office. This article will provide a how-to guide on finding information on congressional candidates for the upcoming 2008 elections.

So what do you want to know about the election? Are you registered to vote? If registered, where do you go to vote? Will you need some kind of ID? What kind of voting machines may your polling place have? What district are you in? Who is running for Congress in that district? Can you find some biographical background, information on credentials, or professional experience and expertise for the candidates? What kind of a job has the incumbent done? What hope from the challenger? What positions do your candidates take on the issues? How did the incumbent vote on legislation important to you, your family, and your community? …