Overall Description of the Research Project

“Voting Advice Applications and the Politics of Citizen Competence”

This research project is funded as part of the “Contested Democracy” program of the Netherlands’s national agency for funding scientific and scholarly research, the NWO.  It is a short-term project (Feb. 2011- January 2012) focused on a specific area of practical concern, the emergence of online voting advice applications.

Persistent concerns on the part of democratic theorists about the apathy, ignorance, and irrationality of voters have led to heated debates about whether to focus on raising citizen competence or developing forms of political representation that are driven by experts. In this context, the recent emergence of Voting Advice Applications (“VAA”s), such as the Dutch StemWijzer and Kieskompas, represents an intriguing development.  These web-based applications assist voters in identifying political candidates and parties that share their views on key issues.  Interestingly, VAAs seem to allow citizens to raise their competence without having to read a newspaper, watch political debates, or study the party programs.

Our central research question is this:  To what extent does the extensive use of (appropriately designed) voting advice applications accord with reasonable expectations regarding citizen competence?  Our research approach involves analyzing the assumptions that are built into the conventional ways in which citizen competence is conceptualized, on the basis of prior work that team members have done in three areas in particular:  (1) a situationalist or “extended” understanding of the citizen as a rational chooser, (2) a context-sensitive understanding of competence in terms of gaps between institutional requirements and available capacities, and (3) a constructivist and “agonistic” understanding of citizen competence as an essentially contested construct. On the basis of this analysis, we will formulate recommendations, in consultation with policy-makers, regarding the tensions and/or synergy between public policy of citizenship education, the reality of apathy and ignorance, and the potential impact of VAAs.