Servicey: Getting the Real Story on Politicians

Politicians are sneaky little creatures, which means that if you want actual information about a politician because you’d like to make an informed vote, you’re going to have to do some hunting. And you may have to delve extremely deep to get the real story, because many of the sources you will find are going to contain biases. Which is not necessarily a bad thing; biased sources can be very useful, as long as you remember to factor the bias in when considering the information put forward by those sources.

A politician’s website will include a lot of pretty information about a platform, complete with testimonials from loving members of the public. This information can be useful if you want to see how politicians are choosing to position themselves; often, it provides pretty basic material you can use to unilaterally rule out a candidate, because some stated ethics may not mesh with your own. It’s always convenient when they make it easy for you to take them off your list of viable contenders, you know.

But the website is only the beginning. Politicians can say whatever they want there because they’re not exactly accountable. They can make promises and pretty claims and talk about how much the issues mean to them, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to do anything about those issues, let alone that they’re going to do what you would like them to. It can help to take some notes on what a politician is promising and what the core of the platform seems to be, though, because this information can be helpful in the future.

If you’re lucky, you’re evaluating a politician who has experience in politics, which means that you can use an actual record to match with the claims and determine if the politician really does practice what’s being preached. Voting records are a matter of public record, if you know where to go. Depending on what level of politics we’re talking about, that might involve going to a county or city hall for records on proceedings, in which case you may want to think about recent key political events to look up; you don’t want to go through a year of City Council votes, you want to see how the politician you are researching voted in a particular instance, because it can provide insight into that Council member’s overall philosophy.

For legislators, voting records are often readily available online. Again, that’s a lot of material to go through. You may want to pick out a number of bills of particular interest and see how your person voted. Depending on how robust the search is, you may also be able to generate a list of bills introduced or co-sponsored by the politician who interests you. These can also be chock-full of interesting information. Sometimes legislators introduce things as a stunt or protest, well aware that it won’t pass, and things like, say, an attempt to introduce a Fair Tax bill can provide useful insights into how a politician feels about issues you care about.

You don’t have to be a political scientist to do this stuff. If you care about, for example, abortion, you can search for ‘2010 abortion bills’ to see what kind of legislature came up during that session. You don’t need to know bill numbers or names, although they can help. There’s raw data out there you can use to find the information you want. You can also look up various activist organisations and go through their records to find legislation they care about. This can help you sift through legislation to find the most relevant and useful material for your purposes.

Vote Smart can also be useful for information on candidates with a political past. They publish ratings from various interest groups, which, when viewed together, can be very informative. You can see how, say, the National Rifle Organisation feels about a candidate. You might want to keep a sharp eye out for organisations you don’t like so you can avoid politicians they enthusiastically endorse and think are doing a fantastic job. Conversely, you can also look for groups you believe are doing good work to see how they feel about candidates. Remember in both cases that interest group ratings can be based on strange criteria sometimes, and you may not always agree with the criteria they use. You can also encounter skews, like a ‘no rating’ because there’s not enough information, and not having a rating doesn’t necessarily mean that politician works with (or against) the aims of that organisation.

It’s harder when you are looking at a politician without a record, but it’s still possible to find at least some information, particularly if it’s a candidate for a major party. You don’t get the backing of a party if you are a blank slate, which means there is information out there somewhere that might be revealing. Check for speeches and opinion editorials, which at least can give you an idea of how the person thinks and what kinds of messages the candidate believes are important. That doesn’t mean the politician will actually follow through if elected, of course, but they can be a good start.

Poke around for biographical information; you may be able to dig up some good dirt from local newspaper archives. Usually people at the beginnings of their political careers pop up in the paper locally for a few years first, and those stories can be…interesting. They often show a politician at the stage before self-consciousness and hyper-vigilance about message. You will find a less self-aware version of the politician, and one who may be more willing to say/do things that are risky, and thus, revealing.