Ongoing Constitution Unit research is exploring how quality of information and public discussion during election and referendum campaigns can be improved. In recent years, voting advice applications have been promoted as a way of providing impartial, good-quality information on salient issues and parties’ positions thereon. Michela Palese outlines the debate on this topic and relates early thoughts from a research trip to Germany, where the state-sponsored Wahl-O-Mat was used 15.7 million times during the 2017 federal election campaign.
Since last May, Dr Alan Renwick and I have been working on a project to understand how the quality of information and public discussion during election and referendum campaigns could be improved. In this context, I have been examining ‘voting advice applications’ (VAAs): online tools that aim to assist users in their voting decision.
In this post, I briefly contextualise the emergence of VAAs and consider the debate on the role of such tools in the UK. I then report initial findings from a research trip to Germany, where the Federal Agency for Civic Education (Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung; hereafter BPB) develops and promotes a voting advice application – the Wahl-O-Mat – for all federal and most state elections.
The origins of voting advice applications
The first VAA, the Stemwijzer, was developed in the Netherlands in 1989. Available on paper or on a diskette, it aimed to increase secondary school students’ knowledge of the differences and similarities among parties, and to aid the formation of party political choices. VAAs became available online in the mid-1990s in Finland and the Netherlands.
VAAs have spread particularly since the early 2000s, and almost all European countries now have at least one. While they take varied forms, all VAAs present users with statements to agree or disagree with and then match these responses to the positions of political parties. Developers generally use party manifestos or prior statements as a starting point, and often engage parties directly in the development process.
Figure 1: Example of a VAA statement (UK Election Compass)
Despite their name, VAAs aim primarily to inform users of the issues and the parties’ positions, rather than to provide a voting recommendation. They thereby seek to help citizens form their views and stimulate their further engagement with political issues.
Voting advice tools in the UK
VAAs were first developed in the UK for the 2005 general election and the 2008 London mayoral elections. Since 2015, they have proliferated and have been developed by multiple third-sector organisations, sometimes in collaboration with international partners. Usage figures are quite varied, with GE2017 being the most frequently used in 2017.
|Name||Developer||Number of Users||Years Active|
|GE2017.com||Explaain||Over two million||2017 general election|
|Verto||Bite the Ballot and Demos||400,000 in 2015||2015 general election; 2016 London mayoral election|
|Vote for Policies||Vote for Policies||910,000 in 2015||2010, 2015 and 2017 general elections|
|Vote Match||Unlock Democracy||1.2 million in 2010
|2008 London mayoral election; 2009 and 2014 European Parliament elections; 2010 and 2015 general elections|
|Who Should You Vote For?||Who Should You Vote For?||1.1 million in 2015||2005, 2010, 2015 and 2017 general elections|
Table 1: some of the most popular VAAs in the UK.
In the reports of its 2014 inquiry into voter engagement in the UK, the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee included voting advice applications among ways for stimulating political engagement and recommended that they be developed by independent organisations (Recommendation 165). Similarly, the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy (DDC) encouraged ‘public education bodies and charities to consider how to make available and publicise trustworthy information about candidates and their policies, including by means of voter advice applications’ (Recommendation 22).
Among VAA developers, there has been some debate on entrusting the state or the Electoral Commission with the production of a national VAA or, at least, on involving them in this process (especially through funding or official endorsement). But the DDC said it would not be appropriate for parliament to implement this, given its need to remain impartial. The Electoral Commission also rejected the idea that they could produce a VAA.
The Wahl-O-Mat (Vote-O-Mat) was developed in 1998 by the BPB and first used prior to the 2002 Bundestag elections. Since then, it has been set up for all federal and European elections, and most state elections. In the past 15 years, its usage figures have steadily increased from 3.6 million users in 2002 to 15.7 million in the 2017 Bundestag elections. The Wahl-O-Mat is the most frequently used voting advice application worldwide in absolute numbers.
Similarly to most other VAAs, the Wahl-O-Mat’s aim is to provide information and stimulate political debate and participation by presenting voters with information on the main issues and parties’ positions. It targets young and first-time voters, for whom clear and independent information particularly matters.
A unique feature of the Wahl-O-Mat is the fact that the statements are selected by a group of 20–25 first- or second-time voters under the age of 27 (the so-called ‘editorial staff’), who represent a state or the entire federal territory. The ‘editors’ work in thematically divided units and select statements which are easy to understand, address relevant issues and differentiate among parties, with the help of journalists, political scientists and experts in different fields.
The Wahl-O-Mat has become a compulsory part of the election campaign in Germany. All parties can take part. It is launched at a press conference where party representatives publicly take the test, accompanied by intense media coverage. Many websites and media partners host or link to it.
The role of the state
A unique feature of the Wahl-O-Mat is that it is developed by a state institution – the BPB – rather than by a media or not-for-profit organisation, as in other countries. While the BPB is institutionally linked to the Ministry of the Interior, it is supervised by an all-party board, and concerns about bias are almost non-existent. The BPB is extremely well-known and positively viewed in the country. This is the result of the organisation’s development and role in strengthening democracy through civic education in the aftermath of the Second World War. Almost everyone knows about the BPB and its work, as they come across its educational materials at school.
The BPB’s belief in the principle of ‘subsidiarity’ means that it views itself as ‘resource-giver’ and co-ordinator of the Wahl-O-Mat. The people I spoke with stressed that the real decisions are taken by the ‘editorial staff’ and parties, not the BPB. The staff choose the questions, and parties are responsible for determining their positions. This decentralisation further protects the BPB’s independence.
The BPB’s involvement is most significant in publicising the tool. Its privileged position as a well-known, neutral information-provider means that online platforms publish the tool on their own site without fear of being accused of partiality.
The BPB’s role was key to achieving buy-in from political parties in the early stages of the Wahl-O-Mat’s development and remains a reason for their participation. Parties can determine their position on each issue and provide an explanation. While some critics fear that parties’ self-positioning opens the VAA to manipulation, my interviewees thought inconsistencies and ‘manipulations’ would be quickly picked up by the media and the public. The short explanations allow parties to nuance their answers to each agree/disagree question and ‘document all the caveats’, as one interviewee put it.
My interviewees stressed that the BPB is a special organisation given its history and role in fostering democracy. It might be difficult for a state actor tasked with providing information to be viewed as legitimate and independent in the UK. If a similar approach were attempted in the UK, it might be preferable for it to act at greater distance, funding an independent body to run a voting advice application or coordinate the work of third-sector organisations.
According to a party spokesperson I interviewed, parties have two primary aims when taking part in the Wahl-O-Mat. First, they wish to support the BPB’s political education work through this easy to use and accessible tool. Second, the Wahl-O-Mat is an effective marketing platform, allowing parties to reach voters who might not otherwise look at their programmes. Even minor parties, which might not receive much media coverage, can market their positions.
Political buy-in is key to the success of a voting advice application. Parties need to be willing to engage actively with VAA developers, whether by directly providing their positions on issues or by being available to clarify policy statements and aid expert positioning, and to act as ‘ambassadors’ for the tool, supporting its educational goals.
Surveys conducted by Stefan Marschall of Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf find that few users say the Wahl-O-Mat changed their voting decision. Rather, the Wahl-O-Mat serves to stimulate reflection and political debate, by cutting through the political and media spin and helping people think for themselves. Everyone I spoke with agreed that people reflect on their results, even – and perhaps especially – when they are unexpected, seek further information, and sometimes reconsider their positions on certain topics. Taking the quiz often sparks considerable discussion. Though the Wahl-O-Mat still targets young and first-time voters, its user base has spread, and Wahl-O-Mat users now mirror the demographics of the online electorate.
The Wahl-O-Mat does increase political discussion on many salient election issues and lead to more informed, fact-based debate.
The Wahl-O-Mat is an effective mechanism for providing information to voters during election campaigns. It works because the BPB is a trusted source of information and because parties participate actively.
This highlights some important issues to consider when examining how to improve the effectiveness and reach of VAAs in the UK. First, while poorly designed state involvement in a VAA could endanger its legitimacy, the state could support an independent body tasked with developing an ‘official’ VAA or co-ordinating the work of multiple third-sector organisations. Second, political parties need to recognise the important role VAAs can play in providing information to the public and actively participate in and sponsor such tools. Third, one should not expect markedly different voting outcomes or turnout levels as a result of increased VAA use. The most powerful impact a VAA can have is on the quality of debate, stimulating a more informed discussion on a variety of topics salient in an election.
About the author
Michela Palese is a Research Assistant (McDougall Fellow) at the Constitution Unit.