It's not often that someone turns in his membership card to the most exclusive club in the land. But when Evan Bayh decided to give up his seat in the U.S. Senate last month, he sparked a trend continued by Rep. Eric Massa this week. The departing legislators, citing partisan politics, give inside-the-beltway confirmation to something Americans have felt for years - Washington is broken.
We think Bayh, and those who continue to follow him, are onto something. And the numbers back them up. According to data from our users in 50 states, a quarter of the U.S. Senate votes along with its constituents only 30 percent of the time. In other words, when these 25 Senators, Republican and Democrat, say yea or nay on the Senate floor, they're voting against their hometown neighbors on two-thirds of the country's most important issues. What's more, half of the Senate votes against those back home more than 50 percent of the time.
So if the Senate is so out of step with the country, how did it get elected in the first place? The numbers help us here as well. Remarkably, there is often no link between the way a member Senate votes and how people think of him back home. Mark Warner boasts one of the highest approval ratings in the Senate but votes along with the people of Virginia only 23 percent of the time. On the reverse, Richard Burr suffers one of the lowest approval ratings in the Senate but votes along with the people of North Carolina 65% of the time. The numbers show that Washington status is determined more by partisan branding campaigns to boost approval ratings than about bills.
Part of the problem is that voting records are so difficult to dig up, even in an era of open government, and politicians have learned that a good campaign can trump an out-of-touch voting record. Unless you know a bill number or a bill's technical name, good luck looking up the vote count. Adding all these vote counts to look at a pattern is an impossible task. That's why most congressional offices keep a handful of staff whose job is nothing but answering mail on how their legislator voted.
We believe technology offers another option. Every time a member of congress climbs the steps of the Capitol, he should have the benefit of knowing how the folks back home feel on the legislation in front of him. And those back home should be able to tell him how they feel right from the grocery store check-out line or between meetings using an iPhone or BlackBerry. Voting records should be available online in plain English side-by-side honest, non-partisan, real time public opinion. And elections should be based on the issues.
Over the past year, we've assembled 60,000 people who agree. They've signed up for Visible Vote, a free application that lives wherever you live online - from Facebook to your smartphone. It lets you view voting records and reach Congress simply, by adding your vote to any bill or contacting your legislator at the push of a button. Visible Vote helps turn the debate back toward the issues and away from partisan tactics by strengthening the pipeline between legislators and constituents.
We're happy to say that some in the Senate, including some up for re-election this year, won't need this pipeline as much as others. Charles Schumer already votes with New Yorkers 65 percent of the time, Jim DeMint with South Carolina 78 percent of the time, and Patrick Leahy with Vermont 82 percent of the time. Not surprisingly, many pundits would say these candidates are least susceptible to challengers who like to peel back the brand and expose voting records to the public.
A recent CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll corroborates our data, finding 86 percent of Americans believe government is broken. However, the poll also finds 81 percent believe it can be fixed - and that's what we've set out to do. As the 2010 election cycle comes into focus, we will be measuring the success of incumbents - not by the polls they release or by their war chests - but by how their records stack up with what their neighbors back home expect. We invite you to join us at http://www.visiblevote.us/.
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