To make an informed decision in a democratic election, voters must critically assess the policies and the track record of both the political parties and candidates competing for their vote. However, the lack of accessible, objective information in the public domain makes this a challenging task and risks many voters making a decision on more superficial grounds such as campaign slogans and posters. Research at the University of Limerick is actively exploring and tackling this problem.
Voting Advice Applications reach a mass audience of undecided voters, helping them to make an informed decision based on policy
Dr Rory Costello elaborates: “Democratic elections are supposed to lead to a parliament that represents the views of the voters. However, our research shows that there are often significant differences in the policies supported by parties and the views of their voters, especially when we look beyond the main economic issues that typically dominate media coverage. This highlights an ‘information deficit’ during elections.”
To address this deficit, Dr Costello has pioneered the use of Voting Advice Applications (VAAs) in Ireland. VAAs are online platforms that provide voters with a way to quickly compare parties and candidates, and find out who they align with most on a wide range of issues. Having collaborated on a number of VAAs in Ireland and internationally since 2007, Dr Costello developed WhichCandidate.ie in 2015, which is tailor-made for the Irish political system.
Dr Costello adds: “The impact these online tools have had is evident both in the volume of traffic they have attracted and feedback from users. WhichCandidate was used by more than 130,000 voters during by-elections and the 2016 general election campaign. The majority of users were young, unattached voters. These are exactly the type of people who are likely to abstain in an election when they feel they lack the relevant information. Many have commented that using the site has not only helped them to decide, but also given them a fresh perspective on politics.”
While these projects were developed to address challenges identified by previous research, they have in turn fed into further research on political representation. Data collected through the VAAs on the policy preferences of voters and candidates, together with data collected by Dr Costello on the performance of parties in office, have been used to study the dynamics of political representation in Ireland. To maximize public impact, this research has been produced and publicised through a range of national and local media outlets during the relevant election campaign, rather than after the event as is usually the case with academic research. In this way, the research has helped to shape the public debate at election time.