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To Know the Score, First Know the Scorekeeper

The primaries are underway and a flurry of legislative scorecards is coming out, offering both information and misinformation about the candidates. The grades are useful so long as you know how they were determined.

Voter at the Flawn Academic Center on The University of Texas campus November 5, 2013.

Political candidates regard scorecards the same way carmakers regard the annual ratings from auto and consumer magazines.

It’s great to be No. 1, to have a third party say that what you are selling is better than what everybody else is selling. Those ratings show up on websites and in advertising, and the reprinted articles are sprinkled around dealer showrooms. But for anyone unlucky enough to land on a particular reviewer’s lemon list, the fastest way out is to question the integrity of the reviewer.

A great scorecard rating from the right group is solid gold in politics. Trade associations and political, policy and ideological groups pick out the legislative votes they deem important and grade lawmakers based on their individual votes on those issues.

Done honestly, the reports can be useful to voters. If you belong to the Texas Association of Skateboarding Goatherds, you might want to know who did well on its scorecard. You might want to know that your own lawmaker was out of sync. It’s the kind of information voters are supposed to gather on their way to the polls: Elect someone, look at what they’ve done in office and decide whether to keep or shuck them in the next election.

But scorecards are easy to manipulate, too, both from the legislative end and from the scoring end. The outsiders doing the scorecards try to oversimplify a complicated process. The insiders who don’t want to be scored try to hide behind those complications.

For instance, state lawmakers vote on the Texas budget several times before it gets to the governor for signature, amending it and scooting preliminary versions along the path to final approval. As a practical matter, that often means voting on versions that are less than exceptional, knowing that a final version will come back before the process ends. It means voting in favor of things that, in the end, a legislator will oppose.

The vote that counts depends on who you are and what you want to tell the public. The makers of the various scorecards choose not only the issues that are important to them, but the votes that make their own champions look good and their foes look like dolts.

The results can be misleading and candidates have to scramble to convince voters they were on the right side of a given issue. Look at the current squabbling over the scorecard issued by Texas Right to Life, which gave low rankings to several lawmakers for their votes on end-of-life legislation favored by the group but opposed by other conservative groups focused on the same issues.

Or look at the perennial bickering over the scorecard from Empower Texans, a conservative advocacy group that has had an outsize influence in Republican primaries over the last two or three election cycles. Most groups share their scorecards with their members and other interested parties. It’s up to the candidates who like the ratings to tell voters about their high grades. Empower Texans does its own direct contact, using its own report card in mailers and other materials to promote candidates it likes and to attack incumbents it hopes to unseat.

The candidates kick back, when they can. That often means they kick back when they’re not engaged in tough campaigns. State Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, is the only candidate who filed in his House district this year. He’s safe. That frees him to complain about the ratings from conservative groups that he says are more interested in power politics than in getting things done.

“For those of us who have been conservative Republicans since before Texas changed from Democratic to Republican control, all this is extremely frustrating,” he wrote in a column for The Texas Tribune this week.

Dozens of political and legislative scorecards make the rounds every year, and campaigns are starting to stuff Texas mailboxes with fliers including their own good grades and their opponents’ failing scores.

That leaves it to the voters to sort things out, to decide whether they agree with the way a particular set of grades were assembled and, ultimately, whether they think their legislators did a good job and deserve another shot.

Some of the cars on the political lot really are gems — and some of them really are lemons.

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