Our new strategy to educate voters and hold legislators accountable.
By John Stemberger
Overview & Executive Summary
In the past, we have printed and distributed paper copies of voter guides statewide. Several important changes and additions will be made in this 2016 Primary Election cycle and beyond regarding how voter guides and voter information are produced and distributed. We are making these changes for three reasons: 1) Due to advances in technology, the majority of people we serve are now able to conveniently access our voter guide via the Internet; 2) We see the need for increased information about and accountability for our elected officials, so we are providing additional resources and; 3) We have the obligation to be good, efficient stewards and to be as effective as possible with the funds entrusted to us.
On occasion, Florida Family Policy Council (FFPC) may continue to mass print paper guides and drop ship them into every county as we have done in the past. However, beginning this election cycle, we are making some exciting changes and improvements in how we are providing this voter information.
First, for some elections, voter guides will be available online in two formats. The first is a printable PDF document on the FFPC website (FLFamily.org), where churches and other groups can go to download and print copies of a 501(c)3 compatible guide for distribution in churches.
Second, in addition to the PDF church voter guide, a new, interactive, and more extensive online voter guide will provide much more detailed information on state legislative and congressional races, as well as “rating” or “scoring” state and federal candidates on a range from “very liberal to very conservative.” This product will be produced by our sister group Florida Family Action.
Third, Florida Family Action has also published its first ever Legislative Scorecard this year and plans to continue to publish this resource annually. The Legislative Scorecard gives every state legislator a numeric grade (0%-100%) and corresponding letter grade (A-F) based upon their voting record on our issues during the 2015 and 2016 legislative sessions.
Finally, Florida Family Action will be issuing strategic candidate endorsements. Endorsements from FFA have been somewhat rare and selective in the past. However, in 2016, FFA will be more aggressive than ever in issuing endorsements in the following cases: 1) where we feel our support could make a difference 2) where a candidate will be a real champion for our issues and not just a solid vote and/or 3) where a good candidate is up against a candidate who will be very bad (or dangerous) on our issues.
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For the past 11 years, FFPC has been a statewide leader in the research, design, and printing of millions of paper voter guides which have been distributed throughout the state in churches prior to elections. This voter guide development process involved mailing an issue questionnaire to each candidate to fill out so that voters would know where they stood on various policy issues.
The Challenge of Creating a Voter Guide
Over the years, the challenge with this process became that fewer and fewer candidates were filling out these questionnaires for any organization. In the past, within our movement, a decent number of Democrats would fill them out as well as almost every Republican. Today, maybe only one or two Democrats will complete the survey and increasingly many Republicans are failing to complete the questionnaire. This trend is not just a challenge for our organization, but also for other policy groups– including our opponents.
Most Politicians Do Not Like Questionnaires
One of the primary reasons for this is that politicians do not like accountability. They would rather voters look only at their colorful websites, smiling family portraits, clever sound bites and negative smear ads, rather than the cold hard facts of how they actually voted in office. In fact, the most accurate way to judge any candidate is to study their past voting record. This is the very reason why FFA has created its Legislative Scorecard, to equip you with a tool to help you know where your legislators have stood on important issues and to hold them accountable for those positions.
Another challenge in developing voter guides has been the expense. It is nice to get a full-color voter guide handed to you at church before an election. There is something about holding a piece of paper that many people still like and prefer. We understand this, as I am one of those people! But this process is very expensive and enormously time consuming. In one election cycle, we create several (sometimes as many as 17) different versions of the guides to accommodate hundreds of candidate comparisons and then print millions of the guides, drop ship them and hand deliver them to each of Florida’s 67 counties. Our volunteer network is then responsible for helping to distribute them directly to local churches. This is a very time intensive and very costly process.
Electronic Voter Guides
When there is sufficient funding to print paper voter guides, we may continue to do so. However, each election cycle presents us with a greater challenge to fund and to provide this service. We believe it is possible to reach even more people with an PDF electronic version of the voter guide as we move forward, as our state population and the use of mobile devices, computers, and cell phones grow.
This electronic PDF guide will be placed on our website and pushed out for churches and other groups to print or download their own copies for church members or community groups. Churches, organizations or individuals can print as many copies as they would like.
Online Voter Guide Programs
Depending on the system, there are both strengths and weaknesses to using an online voter guide program. With an online voter guide, individuals are provided with a personalized ballot featuring only the information for candidates and races they will be voting on in that election, simply by entering their address. FFPC has researched various options for many years and has finally settled on an online voter guide system which we are testing in this election cycle. The program does not yet have the capacity to list every local city and county candidate’s information, but that is a feature we believe we will be able to provide in the future. This new resource is now available HERE:
Our PDF voter guide (in elections that it will be available) will be located online or on our website and will include 501(c)3, church compliant, survey information from the top races for President, U.S. Senate, Congress and some proposed constitutional amendments. For information on the other down-ballot candidates (mainly state legislative races), our supporters will simply need to go online to the online voter guide above.
“Why can’t you just tell me who to vote for?”
This is probably one of the most commonly asked questions we receive. People that follow us trust our research, reputation and judgment and often just want a list of the best people in each election to vote for. This is easier said than done.
If the voter guide is paid for by a 501(c)3 organization, such as FFPC, and distributed by churches, endorsements are improper; both in terms of FFPC issuing them and churches distributing them under IRS regulations. While it is very hard and very rare for a church to lose its IRS non-profit status, this is not the case with other faith-based non-profits, like FFPC, that are not bona fide churches.
Florida Family Action (FFA), a 501(c)4, can issue endorsements, but donations to FFA are not tax-deductible to the donor. Furthermore, these FFA endorsement statements cannot be distributed in churches. The endorsements we did issued are located on the blogs of our FFA website at www.FloridaFamilyAction.org.
FFA has published a Legislative Scorecard for the very first time! Every sitting state legislator was graded based on their voting record on the issues on which we advocate. Each state legislator was assigned a numerical grade (0-100%) and a corresponding letter grade (A+-F). This is a great tool to show exactly how each candidate voted on issues of concern to you! One downside of this resource, however, is that any election challenger who is not an incumbent legislator will not be listed. In addition, we can only rate legislators on issues where there was an on-the-record vote (not voice votes). Typically, we could only score on votes which were held on the full floor of the House or the Senate. Committee votes are more challenging to score because not everyone is on every committee to score equally.
Endorsement of Candidates in the Primary
In the past, formal endorsements either from myself personally or from FFA have been very rare and selective. The philosophy up until now has been to remain very “conservative” and only endorse candidates in major political races or in special cases. We were even more reluctant to endorse in a primary election if all the candidates were mostly favorable on our core issues.
However, given the current political climate and the brutal and deceptive tactics of our opponents, we will be more aggressive than ever in endorsing candidates in 2016 and beyond. FFA will actively endorse in strategic GOP primary races. We can no longer assume that Republicans will be conservative and that some Democrats will be open-minded and non-partisan. If we do not fully engage in helping to select good candidates in the primary, we may be left with, yet again, two bad candidates to choose from in the general election.
FFA will issue endorsements using three factors to guide our decision-making:
1) Will our support make a difference in a close race?
2) Is there a candidate who will be a real champion for our issues and not just a reliable party-line vote?
3) Is there a good-to-great candidate running against a candidate who will be bad-to-really-bad (or even dangerous) on our issues?
The candidates endorsed in 2016 for the August 30, primary election can be found HERE:
Judicial Voter Guides
Much could be said on the history here, but for 11 years FFPC has produced one of the only truly comprehensive Judicial Voter Guides anywhere in the state by any organization. This product gives voters all the information available on judges up for election to County Court, Circuit Court, Court of Appeals and the Florida Supreme Court. This extensive online grid directs voters to additional websites, questionnaires and information to provide comprehensive information on the judicial candidates. Lord willing, we will continue to be able to produce this unique product online, as it has been, in 2016 and beyond.
Local County Voter Guides
Some of our local alliance partners in the field do a great job at creating local voter guides that cover state and county candidates. When possible, we will post credible local county guides as well on our voter guide resource page and make them available in PDF. These local guides come in all shapes and sizes and many are not suitable for official church distribution but anything can be printed and handed out from one member to another.
Some Legislators Are Going to be Upset
The FFA Legislative Scorecard ratings and endorsements may make some legislators upset. Maybe even some of our friends. But ultimately, we are not like the typical lobbyists in Tallahassee who play the game, cut PAC checks, and try to be buddies with every legislator in hopes of getting their cause or industry more funding or more favorable laws to make more money. Our role is different. We have two major assets in Tallahassee. We have the Truth. And we have a lot of people who agree with the Truth who vote. With that said, we feel a great responsibility to steward our resources carefully.
Whether it is voter guides, scorecards, or endorsements, there is no easy way to hold elected officials accountable when they spend a lot of time and effort to evade accountability. Nonetheless, our goal will be to continue educate voters, support good people, get them elected, and then hold them accountable to do the right thing. This is one of the major reason FFA exists. When speaking of motivating politicians to vote right, former President Ronald Reagan once said, “It is not necessary for them to see the light, but merely to feel the heat…” We hope the new additional resources we are providing will be helpful to you as you seek to make a wise and informed decisions this election cycle. And with your continued support, and by God’s grace, we can and WILL make a difference.
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