Originally from Virginia, Walter McKusick, national director of Vote Smart based in Des Moines, works to provide accurate, fact-based information to the nation’s electorate.
Writer: Lisa Lavia Ryan
Photographer: Duane Tinkey
It’s no surprise to Walker McKusick, or anyone who knows him, that he’s making a living in politics. “When I was growing up, polling places were right across the street from my house,” says the national director of Des Moines-based Vote Smart. “I imagine the first conversation I ever heard was about whom my family members were voting for.”
Those early experiences also most likely shaped the political career he built for himself. As he was growing up in Charlottesville, Virginia, his household was split politically. Now, he helps lead and broaden the reach of a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization that collects and distributes information on candidates.
“We simply provide the factual information that helps individuals make the decisions they are most aligned and comfortable with,” the 29-year-old McKusick says.
McKusick, who has degrees in history and economics from the University of Virginia, began his career teaching U.S. politics to British boarding-school students in 2013 and 2014.
“Teaching could not have been a better experience for me, as it made me realize how much I still had to learn about our political system here in the U.S.,” he says. “The more I studied and the more I learned, the more I felt compelled to make my classroom bigger, so to speak.”
He came across Vote Smart, then based in Montana, online and was intrigued. Former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford and a bipartisan group of politicians founded the nonprofit in 1992. McKusick was hired in 2015 to study the voting behaviors and records of special-interest groups.
A million people visited the organization’s website the week leading up to the 2016 election, he says, “and we felt the obligation to make sure the electorate was receiving the facts—not the noise, but the facts.”
McKusick soon was promoted to national director, and following the election, the group set a goal of relocating to increase its national profile. “We received a lot of bids, but we were impressed with everything about Drake University—except for maybe the weather,” he says with a laugh. “Largely because of the caucuses, Drake was a great fit because of the way Iowa prepares its citizens for the national political responsibility it has every four years. A lot of eyes are on Iowa.”
Vote Smart employs about 30 people in Des Moines; approximately 35 interns work remotely across the country. McKusick spends much of his time evaluating the organization’s digital tool kit to ensure voters are receiving accurate, up-to-the-minute information.
“What we do is about education—to help people understand, for instance, that there’s a difference between reputable news sites and, say, a blog,” he says. “Frankly, it’s getting more and more difficult for people to be able to discern what is factual and what’s not. So many sites look very similar to one another.”
Joseph Jones, executive director of the Harkin Institute, has collaborated with McKusick since Vote Smart moved here. Jones says McKusick’s knowledge about politics is the characteristic that best defines him, but his passion and charisma set him apart from others in his field.
“He is fair and thorough in his analysis, and he knows how to help people connect to the information they need,” Jones says. “And perhaps most importantly, he empowers people to want to learn more. He never belittles them.”
McKusick says he hopes his future with Vote Smart and Des Moines is a long one; he admits to being “in love with” the city and all it has to offer, particularly its bicycle trails. The Sherman Hill resident also enjoys playing and watching soccer, volunteering with the Des Moines Parks and Recreation Department, and spending time with his partner, Lauren Donovan, and their cat, Darcy.
“Long-term, I am interested in law as a system that impacts our daily lives; my dad works for a legal nonprofit, and that remains an interest of mine in addition to politics,” McKusick says. “I want to collaborate and I want to contribute, reaching as many people as I can in a positive way. I love that Des Moines has allowed me to do so much of that.”