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Project Vote Smart: Educating American Voters With World Class Technology From The Middle Of Montana

September 26, 2006View for printing

Twenty-five miles outside of Phillipsburg, Montana (Pop. 900)http://www.matr.net/article-15591.html near the Western gateway to Yellowstone National Park sits the 150-acre Great Divide Ranch. From the road, the ranch looks like any other “dude” ranch one would expect to find in this part of the Rocky Mountains.

But the Great Divide offers something more than horse riding lessons and an opportunity to brand your own cow.

Behind the walls of the main house computers controlling one of the largest databases in the United States hum steadily in an open room…people dart about with coffee and readouts…and phones ring. Several TV’s are going at once, adding to the wall of sound.

This is the main vortex of the information hurricane known as Project Vote Smart http://www.vote-smart.org/ .

The Project, or PVS as it is commonly referred to, is a team-run operation of about 100 young people from all around the country. They come to Western Montana from places like Seattle, Los Angeles, Boston, Syracuse and Miami – all to take part in keeping America’s voters informed and up-to-speed on local, state and national political candidates from all parties.

Many are unpaid interns, simply making the trip to be a part of PVS and live in the mountains…people who want to “finish work and go ride a horse,” according to PVS’s Senior Advisor, Adelaide Kimball. Interns live around the ranch, but also live on the ranch in one of the many bunkhouses.

Essentially, PVS tracks all information – from speeches, to lectures, to public appearances, newspaper and magazine quotes, TV commentary, voting records, campaign finance data and issue positions – for every major political candidate in the country, and then makes all of that available to the public to help educate potential voters and party supporters before elections.

Everything is available by phone or on the Web. All a prospective voter has to do is type in a keyword or phrase into the database, or ask one of the interns to do it over the phone. Then it becomes only a matter of listening, or reading, and then, of course, voting.

And although PVS deals with a number of candidates with a number of political affiliations, the organization remains, at its core, completely non-partisan. According to Kimball, the organization receives no financial support from any political party, nor does it take contributions from any corporations or other organizations with a political handle attached. It remains completely neutral at all times, and not for profit.

The Project does have an advisory board made up of former and current politicians, which serves to ensure support for the efforts of the Project's students and volunteers, and balance and strict impartiality in PVS programs and services. However, there are strict rules for becoming a member.

The main rule is that, in order to join, a candidate must have a political opposite already on the board. People as diverse as former Presidents Carter and Ford, former Senators McGovern and Goldwater, former Governor Dukakis, former Congresswoman Ferraro and current Senator McCain have served on the Project's board over the years.

But perhaps the biggest question most people ask Kimball is, “how the heck do you guys do all that in the middle of nowhere?”

Indeed, one of the most compelling aspects of the entire organization is its location. A town of only 900 people, Phillipsburg is very remote. Anything that qualifies as being “outside of Phillipsburg”, such as the Great Divide Ranch, is in no-man’s land.

In a place like this, deer and cows outnumber humans easily. It’s no wonder people ask how such a technologically intricate system requiring major capabilities and Internet speeds to operate can function in a place like this.

However, Montana is just as wired these days than most major metropolitan areas – a fact not many have been able to grasp so far…not even Montanans.

With the help of local telecommunications providers and cooperatives, hi-speed Internet and other hi-tech communications tools are readily available to even the most rural towns and ranches. There is no longer a sense of technological disconnect in the mountain states. And most of the time rural service is cheaper than it is in the cities.

In the Phillipsburg area, Blackfoot Telecommunications is the big dog when it comes to telecomm services. When PVS came along looking for a home, Blackfoot immediately jumped on the chance to help out, wiring special T-1 cables – a special 1.54 Megabyte circuit that runs on either copper or fiber optic cable – all the way out to the ranch for free.

“Blackfoot was just wonderful,” Kimball says. “They came out and connected us free of charge. We have people ask us all the time how we can do what we do out here – they just can’t believe it.”

According to Bill Squires, Senior Vice President at Blackfoot Telecommunications in Missoula, Mont., going the extra mile (literally in this case) for clients is not something new.

“Part of our cooperative philosophy is to get services to the far reaches of our service area,” he said. “Our mission is to take services to those areas if at all possible.”

In the end, Squires says it wasn’t plowing through solid Rocky Mountain stone that was the biggest challenge in getting service to PVS.

“Anytime you’re plowing through solid rock, it’s hard,” he said. “But with PVS it was the capacity that was the big deal. We had to get a very substantial amount of cable out there to get them the proper bandwidth they needed to operate, but that’s another part of our philosophy – we make sure our customers have what they need no matter what.”

But still, one has to wonder – why operate in Montana?

“We chose it so our people could have a great place to work and live,” Kimball says. “The Rockies have a real mystique. We can’t pay a lot of our interns, but we can give them a great experience.”

And, according to Kimball, distance from civilization has other perks.

“The farther we are from Washington, the more people trust us,” she says.

Contact: Dickie Bishop – (406) 721-0785

E-mail – abishop@spikercomm.com

(Many thanks to Bill Gillis of the Washington State University Center to Bridge the Digital Divide http://www.cbdd.wsu.edu/index.html for passing this along. Russ)

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Additional Stories:

Project Vote Smart offers students political-research internships in Montana http://www.matr.net/article-20438.html

Politicians should defend positions. Project Vote Smart http://www.matr.net/article-20131.html

Gazette Opinion: Here's a Web tool to communicate with smart voters http://www.matr.net/article-19790.html

Philipsburg, Montana's change to a must-stop destination a sweet transformation - "Liveliest Ghost Town in the West!" http://www.matr.net/article-15591.html
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