There has been an increase in online voting advice applications across European countries in recent years. These websites aim to allow voters to make more informed decisions at election time and to increase political participation by matching voters with candidates or parties based on their policy positions.
The first pilot of a new voting advice application, Smartvote, targeted at UCD students went live on 23rd February in the run-up to the college’s SU elections. The online survey, modeled on the ‘voting assistance model’ used in similar European initiatives, used a number of questions about campaign policies and the role of the SU to distinguish candidates based on their answers. Website users were asked to agree or disagree with a series of statements on these issues and the results page matched up voters with the candidates who agree with them the most. Speaking to Trinity News, co-founder Gordon Rose commented, “We’ve used the ‘Voting Assistance Application’ model for Smartvote.ie. It’s a tried and tested model used in many European countries already, so we’d like to try and set one up for the national elections in Ireland.”
Co-founder Keith Moore initially came up with the idea for Smartvote.ie in response to campaigning patterns in national politics. He noticed that mainstream parties were significantly outspending independent candidates on campaigning, with a substantial amount of that money allocated to posters. Moore felt that this general trend, and the emphasis on posters, was ineffective in helping voters to understand and distinguish candidates’ based on their respective policies. Smartvote’s voting advice application aims to level the playing-field and allow voters to quickly understand the candidates’ views on topical issues.
For the online survey used during the UCD elections, each candidate was asked 10 questions. Students were presented with similar statements related to the role of the union and sabbatical officer roles. They were asked to agree or disagree with statements such as, “The president should concentrate solely on campus issues”, “On-campus accommodation should be assigned based on need only, not first come first serve” and “Members of the campaigns Forum or elected SU representatives should not be involved with any youth political party.” The results page ranked the candidates by how often they agree and disagree with the answers submitted by the student. A link to each candidates profile on the University Observer website was also included with the results.
Gordon Rose and the Smartvote team are confident that Smartvote.ie had a positive impact on student engagement and voter turnout during the recent elections at UCD. They received encouraging feedback, with some students stating that they weren’t planning to vote until they heard of Smartvote.ie. According to Rose, “the question format helped them understand what the S.U. actually did, and because it compared all the candidates it was a far quicker way of getting a bird’s eye view of the race than reading all the pamphlets and manifestos.”
UCDSU president Feargal Hynes was also enthusiastic about the initiative. “We took on this initiative to help increase engagement around exams by providing an independent medium to assess the candidates,” he told Trinity News. The process is still in development, but it added a new dynamic to our election process, and one which we will be planning to use in the future.”
Over 4,000 students voted in this year’s sabbatical elections, a significant improvement on last year’s turnout of 2,256 students. While Rose acknowledged that the larger number of candidates had an impact on increasing voter turnout in UCD, he also noted that, “Voting assistance apps have been shown to increase voter turnout in national elections for other European countries – so we hope at least a small part of the extra ballots is down to us.”
Smartvote conducted an exit survey of the 2000 students who used the voting assistance application during the elections. The results of this survey indicate that 18% of these students were not going to vote prior to using Smartvote and 65% “decided who to vote for with the help of Smartvote.” 83% stated that they would use Smartvote during the general election.
The project’s founders are keen to expand the initiative and the next trial for Smartvote will be the Carlow-Kilkenny by-election in May. The team are planning to expand to other college campuses in Ireland for SU elections next year and they are ultimately working towards rolling out the Smartvote application in time for the 2016 national elections.
When asked about the possibility of introducing the Smartvote online survey for future SU elections in Trinity College, TCDSU president Domhnall McGlacken-Byrne was generally positive about the initiative although he had some concerns regarding the format of the online survey. In particular, he felt that candidates are likely to agree on many topical student issues, however their approach and ability to address these issues may not be clear from the voting advice questionnaire: “No candidate is likely other than to agree strongly that accommodation is a huge issue that needs action, but knowing that doesn’t necessarily tell you that they are capable of doing something about it,” he said.
McGlacken-Byrne’s comments indicate some of the potential issue and limitations of voting assistance applications. In general, concerns have been raised in countries where voting advice applications are in use regarding the neutrality of the questions/ statements presented to users and the reliability of the advice on the results page. In addition, the format of the online questionnaires can potentially simplify complex policy issues by requiring voters to agree or disagree with a series of brief statements. In relation to the Irish Smartvote website, the results page only presented students with a tally of the total number of times each candidate agreed and disagreed with them, beginning with the candidate who agreed with them on the most number of statements. While a link to each candidates profile was provided, the student-voter was not aware which particular statements and policies candidates agreed or disagreed with them on, based on the Smartvote results.
Smartvote is not the first voting advice application in Ireland; the ‘Pick Your Party’ website (pickyourparty.ie) was launched in advance of the Irish general election in 2007. The website allowed members of the public to compare their views on various policies with the positions of political parties involved in the election.
The first section focused on seven policy dimensions: taxes and spending, social policy, EU enlargement, EU strengthening, environment, immigration and Northern Ireland. Members of the public who used the website were asked to indicate their position on these issues by marking a 20-point scale. They were then informed which party was closest to their position in each area of policy and which party was closest to them overall. The website also asked questions regarding vote intention and last vote cast, thus enabling researchers to compare the advice provided by the website with the user’s actual or intended voting decisions.
A study by Matthew Wall, Maria Laura Sudulich, Rory Costello and Enrique Leon analysed the data collected by the ‘Pick Your Party’ website. They note that more than 30,000 people visited the site over a two-week period preceding the election, figures which indicate the “remarkable potential of the internet as a source of political information and a facilitator of political participation,” according to the report’s authors.
The report evaluated the website’s advice by comparing the advice provided to users’ with their stated voting intentions. This provides one good way to analyse the reliability of the website’s recommendations, results and its impact on actual voting habits. However it becomes more complex given that non-policy factors, which could not be incorporated into the voting advice application, often influence voters.
The range of voting advice applications across Europe includes another ‘Smartvote’ founded in 2003 in Switzerland. According to the authors of the ‘Pick Your Party’ report, voting advice applications (VAAs) have been most successful in countries which have highly fragmented party systems, making it more difficult for voters to easily understand and distinguish candidates based on their respective policy positions.
The ‘Pick Your Party’ report indicated that VAAs “have the potential to provide a much-needed shortcut to important information on party positions” however “they should also avoid presenting their results as ‘advice’, and instead emphasise that the results should be considered in conjunction with information drawn from more traditional sources.”
While online voting advice applications may have a certain novelty value for participants, they do have the potential to improve democratic participation if they reach a significant proportion of the population and provided the developers of these sites take into account the importance of unbiased, broad-ranging questions and content and the transparent presentation of subsequent results. The successes and the issues raised by the range of VAAs across Europe provide useful information for Smartvote in creating the most effective and accessible model for the next general election in Ireland.