How conservative are your state’s legislators? Here in Idaho for many years, it was hard to say, because voters and activists were often given only rhetoric. Many candidates campaigned as “conservatives” while activists and opponents would slam them as “liberals” and “RINOs.” Neither side provided a basis for its claim. Even voter guides were of little help. A growing number of political leaders in Idaho refuse to fill out voter guides, citing the deluge of questionnaires that come at them. Others who do fill them out may take popular positions on the form that don’t match how they’ve voted.
In his keynote address to the Republican National Convention, Senator Zell Miller (R-Ga.) presented a solution. “Campaign talk tells people who you want them to think you are,” he said. “How you vote tells people who you really are deep inside.” Voters needed to know where politicians really stood. While they could dodge a voter guide, eventually they would have to cast a vote that would declare their stand on the issues.
Of course, national interest groups like the American Conservative Union create ratings for members of Congress based on their stance on key votes. At the state level, however, these resources are often lacking.
So in 2007, I began to score members of the legislature according to their votes on key issues. The Idaho Conservative Scorecard was born.
For that first year, I scored nine issues in the state House and seven in the state Senate. As I’ve refined my methods of finding data on the bills put to a vote, and as our state has addressed some more serious issues, the number of votes scored has climbed to sixteen issues for both houses in the 2011 session. The issues that have ended up on the scorecard over the last five years include abortion, education reform, illegal immigration, anti-smoking legislation, and — welcome to Idaho — our state’s wolf management issues.
For many conservatives in my state, the Idaho Conservative Scorecard has provided a basis for challenging incumbent legislators. Party higher-ups often advise conservatives that someone who agrees with us 80% of the time is our friend. That saying, though true, no longer applies in the face of evidence that a particular Republican we are being urged to support only agrees with us 30% of the time.
In 2010, the Idaho Conservative Scorecard revealed four Republican Idaho state senators had liberal and moderate voting records. One, Twin Falls Senator Chuck Coiner, had a 31% Idaho Conservative voting record, a fact cited by activists calling for his ouster.
The advantage doesn’t always go to activists, however. The existence and dissemination of a voting record also aids politicians who are wrongfully attacked. One state legislator, who had been accused of being a liberal, has a career conservative rating of more than 90%.
While the Idaho Conservative Scorecard was designed with conservatives in mind, Project Vote Smart saw that anyone can use the Idaho Conservative Scorecard to quickly find out how legislators voted on the most important issues to come up in the Idaho legislature. Thus, as part of its nonpartisan voter education effort, Project Vote Smart provided the Idaho Conservative ratings on its website along with ratings of other groups such as the NRA during the 2008 and 2010 election cycles.
The Idaho Conservative Scorecard has proved that creating a scorecard does not require a large organization or cash reserves. It only requires accurate information, a clear understanding of conservative principles, and the willingness to invest time in the effort.
Once a state legislature’s voting records have been located, the biggest challenge is in selecting the votes that will go on the scorecard. To succeed, you must be clear on what issues will be covered on the scorecard — and avoid votes that would harm your scorecard’s ability to illustrate meaningful comparisons. A small committee may, in some cases, be better able to handle the selection process than an individual.
Conservatives may dispute the scorecard’s decision to include a particular bill or dispute whether the yes or no vote on a bill was the conservative vote. It’s important to be firm but humble in response to such criticism. When legislators complain about issues they were scored down on, I listen to their concerns, but I’ve never removed an issue after the scorecard was announced. Doing so would weaken the scorecard’s credibility by making it appear open to manipulation. Yet we must also acknowledge that we won’t agree on everything and allow it a margin of error.
The weakness of scorecards is that an individual or a committee must define what the conservative vote is. This is why even conservative stalwart Jim DeMint (R-SC) does not have a career 100% rating from the American Conservative Union. A scorecard’s purpose is not to highlight the small differences between, say, a legislator with a 94% rating and one with a 98% rating. A scorecard is best used to measure political miles, not inches. It should easily show the difference between a legislator who votes for conservative values 65% of the time and one that supports them 95% of the time.
Despite the limitations, a conservative scorecard is a powerful tool that brings clarity to political debates, holds politicians accountable to the values they claim to support, and offers information to voters upon which they can make an informed decision.