Today, the Wahl-O-Mat goes online for the coming Bundestag election. Martin Schultze (now with concept m) has researched the tool for years, and asks today, can we take the results seriously as a concrete election recommendation? Does the tool really reach the right people, and for first-time voters, isn’t it much too much ‘Web 1.0’?
During the 2002 Bundestag elections 15 years ago, some 3.6 million people tested the tool of the Federal Agency for Civic Education. It’s meant to help voters form their opinions and to bring greater transparency into the election campaign. Over time, the tool has gained in familiarity and popularity. At the last Federal elections in 2013, almost 13.3 million people clicked through the Wahl-O-Mat. This year’s Wahl-O-Mat will probably significantly top that number. But does the publicly-financed tool really achieve its goal of reaching young people who are relatively out of touch with politics and motivating them to vote? Research on the Wahl-O-Mat at the University of Düsseldorf shows that the tool is actually able to get several people to vote who had not previously planned to do so. However, the overwhelming majority of users are already mobilised.
User profiles, based on exit polls after the Wahl-O-Mat, and data from the German Longitudinal Election Study show that the prototypical user is male, young and significantly better educated and politically interested than the average internet user.
The goal of reaching young adults out of touch with politics is accordingly not achieved, on the whole. In the age of YouTube, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat, the Wahl-O-Mat is simply too wordy, a classic from the days of Web 1.0. It is difficult to rouse enthusiasm with this in young people uninterested in politics. Instead, the Wahl-O-Mat is reaching the “wrong people”, those who are already politically involved and frequently already have a clear preference for a party. Surveys tell us that the primary motive for most users is confirming their existing sympathies, and less in searching for political orientation and help with their choice of candidate. The slogan is, “Let’s see if my party’s way ahead.”
Wahl-O-Mat has a simple functional logic. The origins of the tool lie in the Netherlands, where the Voting Advice Applications (VAA) were developed in the 1990s as a pencil-and-paper variant. After voters have marked their positions on a range of issues, the user answers are compared with the platform of the parties, showing which party is closest to the voters in question. A complex variant in which the issues are rated on a scale of 1-5 and presented in a two or more dimensional political space (like RTL’s recently launched Wahl-Navi) contrasts with the Wahl-O-Mat’s options of just “yes”, “no” or “neutral”. The issues are developed by experts beforehand together with potential first-time voters. Closeness to the parties is then shown as a simple ranking. This leads to the feeling, “if you believe this, then you should actually vote for this party”. For many users, this is a surprise.
Wahl-O-Mat is not a voting recommendation, but it doesn’t want to be understood as one, so it doesn’t provide too much concrete help. The tool doesn’t take into account key factors in the voting decision. For example, besides the issues, long-term party loyalties and candidate evaluations play a role in the voting decision. These are not covered by Wahl-O-Mat at all, leaving only the comparison of issues relevant in the election between parties and users.
Even here, Wahl-O-Mat only offers a selection of relevant information. Besides the basic question whether you can reduce complex political issues to simple statements which are answered “yes” or “no”, there is no reference to how competent the parties are on these issues, or how strongly they present these statements. Particularly in view of the coalition negotiations, it would certainly be important to know which areas are particularly important for the parties, and which will be given up or softened in the negotiations on forming a government.
Another problem is how the statements are generated. A selection of statements is put together by the Federal Agency for Civic Education weeks before the Wahl-O-Mat starting date. In some cases, this is done even before the parties’ election platforms are announced. This long lead time means that issues arising suddenly can no longer be taken into account. Individual politicians can also deviate from these statements in the campaign. The parties also have an opportunity to position themselves in the most flattering light for the assumed Wahl-O-Mat target group and respond to controversial issues on the basis of this perception. This is an aspect that should not be underestimated.
The result is that people shouldn’t take the concrete recommendation of the Wahl-O-Mat too seriously, but should rather see the tool as an opportunity to get comparative information on several issues, so they can talk about politics.
DR MARTIN SCHULTZE
is a project manager for quantitative market research at concept m research + consulting . From 2010-2016 he was a research officer at the University of Düsseldorf Social Sciences Institute, where he worked on psephology and the Wahl-O-Mat, among other projects. He is the author of numerous national and international articles on the effects and user profiling of the Wahl-O-Mat.
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