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Nonprofit sets out to make SJU pupils educated voters

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Niquelle Orr, a St. John’s University sophomore, has made up her mind about the presidential election. To give you a clue, she is a self−described “Obama mama.”

“I’m really excited I can vote, especially because I turned 18 last year and this is an historic election,” said Orr, who is majoring in early childhood education at St. John’s.

But just because Orr knows who she supports, she was still pleased to learn about Project Vote Smart, a nonprofit and nonpartisan political research organization which tracks the political records of every incumbent and candidate running for president and Congress.

Members of the Montana−based Project Vote Smart spent several hours at the St. John’s campus last Thursday as part of a cross−country bus tour, during which they visited college campuses, senior centers and farmers’ markets to let people know about their group.

“It’s really cool,” Orr said of Project Vote Smart. “It’s important to be informed on candidates’ policies.”

Project Vote Smart’s goal, the group’s communication director, Tony Boehm, explained, is to get information out to voters that is not always accessible on candidates’ Web sites.

For example, the group collects such data as voting records, issue positions, special interest groups’ ratings of the candidates, biographical information, campaign finances, speeches and public statements. Alongside information on candidates for president and Congress, the group collects information on state politicians and judges.

Most recently, the nonprofit has released a “Voter’s Self Defense System,” a booklet that “teaches individuals how to get around the rhetoric that comes out of political campaigns,” Boehm said. The 96−page booklet is a “condensed version of all the information we have on our Web site,” Boehm said.

“People want more information about their candidates,” Boehm added. “They know they can’t trust the TV ads.”

That rang true with Cindy Reyes, a St. John’s junior.

“You have to get as much information as you can,” Reyes said.

Junior Mark Peterson was on his way to the college’s Democrats Club when he noticed the 45−foot Project Vote Smart van parked outside Montgoris Dining Hall.

Though Peterson also already knew he would be voting for Barack Obama, he deemed it important to have information about all levels of candidates readily accessible so voters do not have to spend tedious hours sifting through often cumbersome amounts of information on the Internet.

“To have it all in one place makes a difference,” he said.

For example, the group’s Web site has information on U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner (D−Forest Hills) and the site lists the way Weiner voted on such issues as the financial bailout plan and the Defense Authorizations Bill — both of which he voted to approve.

The defense bill, approved at the end of September, sets authorization limits for U.S. Defense Department appropriations in 2009 at about $539.29 billion. The site segregates votes by topic, such as abortion, budget and taxes, crime and the environment.

At the state level, the group has information on candidates for the 11th Senate District, incumbent state Sen. Frank Padavan (R−Bellerose) and City Councilman James Gennaro (D−Fresh Meadows).

As Project Vote Smart has for most candidates, there is contact information, voting records and special interest groups’ ratings of the candidates.

For more information, visit www.votesmart.org.

Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e−mail at news@timesledger.com or by phone at 718−229−0300 Ext 174.

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