Session at Amsterdam conference (June 2011)

Together with Stefaan Walgrave (University of Antwerpen), we are organizing a session at the annual Dutch-Flemish conference of political science, to be held in Amsterdam, June 9-10, 2011 — the so-called “politicologen etmaal”.  More information, include a call for papers (on the topic outlined below) can be found here.

Voting Advice Applications: Democratic Theory, Political Psychology, and Electoral Behaviour

The recent emergence of online Voting Advice Applications (“VAA”s) — such as the StemWijzer and Kieskompas (Netherlands), “Do the Vote Test” (Belgium) and Wahl-O-Mat (Germany) – raises a range of fundamental issues, both for empirical research and for political theory. This session will provide a forum to discuss not only current research on the influence of VAAs but especially the larger implications for political psychology and political theory.

The background for the session is this. Persistent concerns on the part of democratic theorists about the apathy, ignorance, and irrationality of voters have led to heated debates between optimistic advocates of citizen education campaigns and pessimistic advocates of elite-driven forms of government. In a sense, VAAs are intended to provide an alternative solution to the stalemated debate between pessimists and optimists about citizen competence. The idea behind them is that expert, scientific forms of online assistance can leverage individual voters’ competence, yielding electoral results that more reliably reflect the interests of the people. Moreover, they aim to achieve this by engaging autonomous individual choice rather than by outsourcing the decision-making to the undemocratic authority of experts. As an ideal, VAAs thus seem to allow citizens to raise their competence without having to read a newspaper, watch political debates, or study the party programs. It is, however, not at all clear that the introduction of these VAAs will lead have these ideal effects or even any significant long-term effects on electoral politics.  What is clear, however, is that they are an important part of the current political field. As a result, they are a timely topic for investigation.

This project will aim to address the important issues raised by VAAs, with a focus on questions regarding the implications for three specific areas:

  • Democratic theory: What ideals of citizenship and democratic participation are presupposed (implicitly) by the specific design of various VAAs? Does a democratic state have an obligation to promote the forms of assistance that VAAs offer? To what extent can “assisted” forms of voting still be seen as the free and independent political expressions of autonomous citizens? Are there ways of (re)designing VAAs to better realize central values of transparency, contestability, accessibility, and self-governance?
  • Political psychology: What do current models of political knowledge and civic literacy tell us about the potential advantages or disadvantages of VAAs? To what extent are VAAs likely to lead to a “deskilling” of citizens? What does recent research in political psychology tell us about the prospects for designing and/or regulating VAAs in ways that increase citizen competence and reduce voter apathy?
  • Electoral behaviour: To what extent and in what ways do VAAs actually influence voter behaviour? What variables influence the impact of VAAs? In particular, how does the design of a VAA affect the rates and character of usage? What is the effect of VAAs on party politics, and what are political parties doing to respond strategically to these developments?