Depending on your perspective, voters have never had it so bad. Or so good.
In the first major election cycle since the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling, so-called "super PACs," or political action committees, are pouring tens of millions of dollars — mostly anonymously — into races at all levels of government.
In Michigan, contests for the state House, the state supreme court, the U.S. House and Senate are getting an extra kick from the hyper-partisan super PACs, which are blanketing the airwaves with ads about ballot proposals and candidates that are, for the most part, rife with outright falsehoods, quotes out of context and character assaults. It's virtually impossible to tell who is paying for what and what their motives are.
On the other hand, 2012 has become the election cycle of the fact checkers. Thanks to the Annenburg Foundation (FactCheck.org) and a lot of newspapers willing to spend the considerable money necessary to do the meticulous record-checking and speech vetting it takes to hold candidates' feet to the fire (PolitiFact.com) voters now have more independent sources for reliable information than ever before.
Before FactCheck and PolitiFact and the Truth Squad in Michigan (a project of the Center for Michigan), the granddaddy of them all was Project Vote Smart and its Political Courage Test for politicians. Vote Smart sent questionnaires out to thousands of politicians across the country, recorded their answers to a host of questions and then made those answers — if a politician responded — available on the Internet and in paper form.
It was trail-blazing stuff, and gave voters insights they never had before.
Vote Smart is back with its new VoteEasy, what Vote Smart calls a "candidate match tool" that Vote Smart says will allow citizens to compare their views on the most central issues facing the nation to those of each presidential and Michigan congressional candidate, in order to see who will best represent them if elected.
It's as easy as logging on to www.votesmart.org and clicking on the VoteEasy tab. Choose if you want to know about presidential or congressional candidates, plug in your zip code and choose which issue you want to know about. Click on a tab, answer the question, and the page shows if candidates agree with you on that topic.
Signs with the candidates' photos pop up and include a banner that says they show or lack courage — did they fill out the Political Courage Test (which tells you a lot right there).
If it sounds complicated, just click on and give it a test drive. The new tool from Vote Smart is a great step forward.