The UK is behind the curve on digital democracy

As well as making voting easier, technology can also enrich debate.

Digital democracyj

As well as making voting easier, technology can also enrich debate

If your Facebook feed is anything like mine, you’d be forgiven for ignoring yet another one of those ubiquitous quizzes that pops up on your screen. But with the European elections just over a week away, the latest crop of voting advice applications (VAAs) have hit social media.

These apps match users to the party that best represents their views in an election based on their responses to a set of agree/disagree policy statements. The aim is to inform voters about the policy differences between parties, encourage informed policy debate and boost participation.

Vote Match Europe, which is running in 14 EU countries including the UK, has already been taken by 200,000 users across Europe. The UK version is run by Unlock Democracy, a non-partisan campaign for democratic renewal.

As far as possible, we got parties to fill out their answers themselves, but although smaller parties have jumped at the opportunity to advertise their policies to new segments of the electorate, some of the main parties have proved skeptical. We chose the key issues that parties disagreed on to produce a quiz that makes as clear as possible distinction between the parties.

John Bercow may have launched his commission into ‘digital democracy’ this year, but so far the debate in the UK among policymakers has mainly focused on using technology to make voting easier, overlooking the potential for tools like VAAs to enrich debate and increase turnout.

Indeed, compared to other countries in Europe, the UK is way behind the curve; many European VAAs enjoy public funding and the enthusiastic support of the political establishment. In the UK, 1 million users took the 2010 general election Vote Match, but this pales in comparison to countries like Germany, where for last year’s elections more than 13 million voters took the leading VAA.

These applications could prove particularly valuable in European elections. Political knowledge about EU institutions is generally lower than at national elections: in a Eurobarometer poll, 82 per cent said they knew ‘little or nothing’ about the EU. Apps like Vote Match can act as a first step towards further political participation. Our 2010 feedback survey found four out of five people sought further information and 5 per cent decided to vote as a result of using Vote Match.

These results are confirmed by a growing body of evidence from VAA use across Europe.

The name ‘voting advice applications’ is potentially misleading. Vote Match cannot and does not tell people who to vote for. Many of the bemused responses to Vote Match come from people who have received the ‘wrong’ result.

But Vote Match isn’t about telling people what they already know. People make the decision to vote based on a wide range of factors, so focusing in on just the policies that are at stake in the European election often delivers surprising results.

Vote Match cannot tell users about the competence, leadership or the ability of a party to deliver its stated policies, but it can provide a useful snapshot of what the parties stand for and what they disagree on.

At a time when the likes of Russell Brand are claiming that all parties are the same and voting doesn’t offer a real choice, Vote Match offers a useful weapon to respond.

Pete Mills is policy and research officer at Unlock Democracy

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