The EU and I: How to Vote for an MEP If You Can't Keep Your Parties Straight
BY Jessica McKenzie | Thursday, May 15 2014
Next week Europeans will go to the polls to elect representatives to the European Parliament. Over the course of four days, the 28 members states combined will choose 751 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs). To help them with their decision, voters can turn to the Voting Advice Application euandi. After responding to 28 policy statements, euandi lists the parties that align most closely with voters' values. VAAs have been shown to increase voter turn out on election day and to raise voter awareness about political issues, but statement selection can have an outsized effect on recommendations, leaving plenty of room for bias and inaccuracy.
“For voters, [Voting Advice Applications] show their proximity to political parties on issues that are not often on the top of the agenda in the campaign,” Diego Grazia, project coordinator for euandi, told techPresident. “Representatives get visibility on their political programs that traditional media is unable to give them. The smallest party in Germany and the largest party in Germany will be equally visible to the user.”
VAAs have become increasingly popular in European countries in recent years. Stefaan Walgrave, a professor of politcal science at the Universiy of Antwerp (who has also built four VAAs in Belgium), told techPresident that there is a strong correlation between the number of parties in a country and the popularity of VAAs.
Euandi was built by country teams of four to five researchers (121 researchers in total). Political parties were given a questionnaire of 28 policy questions to fill out. Before programming their responses into the euandi program, however, researchers fact checked their responses against party manifestos, speeches by party leaders, and previous party programs.
“In quite a few instances parties have tried to hide their real position on quite a few unpopular issues and our teams forced the parties to be consistent in the VAA on what their real position is,” Garzia explained.
Walgrave, who has studied the effect statement selection can have on results, told techPresident that VAA statements “aren't very nuanced or specific” and that there is a danger of “simplifying reality.”
“The thing that is lacking,” Walgrave said, “is whether parties keep their promises. Some parties are more accountable, their goals are less big and less grand but they get things done. This [VAAs] is purely about the future, not their reliability in the past.”
Garzia concurs: “This is clearly one of, if not the greatest limitation of the Voting Advice Application...the entire premise is to make stances visible. This is driven by what parties decide to make public.”
So far, Garzia says, they have had one million sessions on euandi. They were aiming for 10 million, but there is still another week to go. “The European campaign has been dead so far, nothing is really happening. What we know for sure is that Voting Advice Applications are much more popular in national elections.”
“If newspapers do not have the willingness to cover the elections there is not much space for us and in turn the users,” Garzia laments. “It's a vicious circle readers are not interested so media are less interested in covering.”
He adds: “European elections are the kind of election contest that need voting advice applications the most because the topics are more obscure.”
After the election the data from euandi will be made available to researchers around the world. One cool thing to look forward to: half of the questions from euandi were also used in the (much simpler) VAA for the European Parliament elections in 2009, before the Eurozone crisis really took hold.
“Basically we can measure how the political positions of parties changed across the crisis,” explains Garzia.
Another cool thing you can do on the platform: after taking the quiz, not only can users see what parties with which they are most closely aligned in their own country, but in any other of the member states, too. And there is a map that shows you where in Europe are the highest proportions of like-minded users (my kindred spirits all reside in Sweden).
So are VAAs going to take off in the States sometime soon? Probably not. Although Walgrave points out that they could be useful in political primaries, where the differences between candidates is more subtle, in general they are less useful in a two party system because voters tend to know where the different parties stand. (Not that that doesn't sometimes still lead to confusion.)
Euandi was developed by the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, led by Professor Alexander Trechsel, with support and guidance from an International Advisory Board of more than 40 political scientists and the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.
Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.