12 June 2017

Could Voting Advice Applications force politicians to keep their manifesto promises?

To what extent do VAAs alter the way voters perceive the meaning of elections, and encourage them to hold politicians to account for election promises? Image: ep_jhu (Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0)

In many countries, Voting Advice Applications (VAAs) have become an almost indispensable part of the electoral process, playing an important role in the campaigning activities of parties and candidates, an essential element of media coverage of the elections, and being widely used by citizens. A number of studies have shown that VAA use has an impact on the cognitive behaviour of users, on their likelihood to participate in elections, and on the choice of the party they vote for.

These applications are based on the idea of issue and proximity voting — the parties and candidates recommended by VAAs are those with the highest number of matching positions on a number of political questions and issues. Many of these questions are much more specific and detailed than party programs and electoral platforms, and show the voters exactly what the party or candidates stand for and how they will vote in parliament once elected. In his Policy & Internet article “Do VAAs Encourage Issue Voting and Promissory Representation? Evidence From the Swiss Smartvote,” Andreas Ladner examines the extent to which VAAs alter the way voters perceive the meaning of elections, and encourage them to hold politicians to account for election promises.

His main hypothesis is that VAAs lead to “promissory representation” — where parties and candidates are elected for their promises and sanctioned by the electorate if they don’t keep them. He suggests that as these tools become more popular, the “delegate model” is likely to increase in popularity: i.e. one in which politicians are regarded as delegates voted into parliament to keep their promises, rather than being voted a free mandate to act how they see fit (the “trustee model”).

We caught up with Andreas to discuss his findings:

Ed.: You found that issue-voters were more likely (than other voters) to say they would sanction a politician who broke their election promises. But also that issue voters are less politically engaged. So is this maybe a bit moot: i.e. if the people most likely to force the “delegate model” system are the least likely to enforce it?

Andreas: It perhaps looks a bit moot in the first place, but what happens if the less engaged are given the possibility to sanction them more easily or by default. Sanctioning a politician who breaks an election promise is not per se a good thing, it depends on the reason why he or she broke it, on the situation, and on the promise. VAA can easily provide information to what extent candidates keep their promises — and then it gets very easy to sanction them simply for that without taking other arguments into consideration.

Ed.: Do voting advice applications work best in complex, multi-party political systems? (I’m not sure anyone would need one to distinguish between Trump / Clinton, for example?)

Andreas: Yes, I believe that in very complex systems – like for example in the Swiss case where voters not only vote for parties but also for up to 35 different candidates – VAAs are particularly useful since they help to process a huge amount of information. If the choice is only between two parties or two candidates which are completely different, than VAAs are less helpful.

Ed.: I guess the recent elections / referendum I am most familiar with (US, UK, France) have been particularly lurid and nasty: but I guess VAAs rely on a certain quiet rationality to work as intended? How do you see your Swiss results (and Swiss elections, generally) comparing with these examples? Do VAAs not just get lost in the noise?

Andreas: The idea of VAAs is to help voters to make better informed choices. This is, of course, opposed to decisions based on emotions. In Switzerland, elections are not of outmost importance, due to specific features of our political system such as direct democracy and power sharing, but voters seem to appreciate the information provided by smartvote. Almost 20% of the voter cast their vote after having consulted the website.

Ed.: Macron is a recent example of someone who clearly sought (and received) a general mandate, rather than presenting a detailed platform of promises. Is that unusual? He was criticised in his campaign for being “too vague,” but it clearly worked for him. What use are manifesto pledges in politics — as opposed to simply making clear to the electorate where you stand on the political spectrum?

Andreas: Good VAAs combine electoral promises on concrete issues as well as more general political positions. Voters can base their decisions on either of them, or on a combination of both of them. I am not arguing in favour of one or the other, but they clearly have different implications. The former is closer to the delegate model, the latter to the trustee model. I think good VAAs should make the differences clear and should even allow the voters to choose.

Ed.: I guess Trump is a contrasting example of someone whose campaign was all about promises (while also seeking a clear mandate to “make America great again”), but who has lied, and broken these (impossible) promises seemingly faster than people can keep track of them. Do you think his supporters care, though?

Andreas: His promises were too far away from what he can possibly keep. Quite a few of his voters, I believe, do not want them to be fully realized but rather that the US move a bit more into this direction.

Ed.: I suppose another example of an extremely successful quasi-pledge was the Brexit campaign’s obviously meaningless — but hugely successful — “We send the EU £350 million a week; let’s fund our NHS instead.” Not to sound depressing, but do promises actually mean anything? Is it the candidate / issue that matters (and the media response to that), or the actual pledges?

Andreas: I agree that the media play an important role and not always into the direction they intend to do. I do not think that it is the £350 million a week which made the difference. It is much more a general discontent and a situation which was not sufficiently explained and legitimized which led to this unexpected decision. If you lose the support for your policy than it gets much easier for your opponents. It is difficult to imagine that you can get a majority built on nothing.

Ed.: I’ve read all the articles in the Policy & Internet special issue on VAAs: one thing that struck me is that there’s lots of incomplete data, e.g. no knowledge of how people actually voted in the end (or would vote in future). What are the strengths and weaknesses of VAAs as a data source for political research?

Andreas: The quality of the data varies between countries and voting systems. We have a self-selection bias in the use of VAAs and often also into the surveys conducted among the users. In general we don’t know how they voted, and we have to believe them what they tell us. In many respects the data does not differ that much from what we get from classic electoral studies, especially since they also encounter difficulties in addressing a representative sample. VAAs usually have much larger Ns on the side of the voters, generate more information about their political positions and preferences, and provide very interesting information about the candidates and parties.

Read the full article: Ladner, A. (2016) Do VAAs Encourage Issue Voting and Promissory Representation? Evidence From the Swiss Smartvote. Policy & Internet 8 (4). DOI: doi:10.1002/poi3.137.


Andreas Ladner was talking to blog editor David Sutcliffe.


Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Policy and Internet Blog, nor of the Oxford Internet Institute.