Voting Advice Applications and Political Theory: Citizenship, Participation and Representation

In Garzia Diego & Marschall Stefan (eds.), Matching Voters with Parties and Candidates: Voting Advice Applications in Comparative Perspective. Colchester, UK: ECPR Press. pp. 217-226 (2014)
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Voting Advice Applications (VAAs) are interactive online tools designed to assist voters by improving the basis on which they decide how to vote. In recent years, they have been widely adopted, but their design is the subject of ongoing and often heated criticism. Most of these debates focus on whether VAAs accurately measure the standpoints of political parties and the preferences of users and on whether they report valid results while avoiding political bias. It is generally assumed that if their methodology is sound, then VAAs can be seen as strengthening the democratic process. But as we argue in this chapter, the setup of VAAs raises basic questions of normative democratic theory as well. Insofar as VAAs are supposed to improve the functioning of the democratic process, it must be clarified in what sense they aim to make a contribution, before it even makes sense to discuss their effectiveness at doing so. VAAs are often intended to enhance the democratic process by one or all of the following: (I) informing voters about the policy standpoints of political parties (or individual candidates), (2) increasing voter turnout, and (3) ensuring that the composition of parliaments more accurately reflects the political attitudes of the electorate. In the next three sections, we discuss three central bones of contention in current democratic theory that are crucial to these ways in which VAAs typically take themselves to contribute to strengthening the democratic process: 1. Questions about citizen competence: What forms of competence do citizens need to have, and to what extent, for a democracy to function properly? 2. Questions about political participation: What forms and extent of participation are vital to democracy? 3. Questions about democratic representation: How should the relation between the elected and the electorate be understood? For each issue we aim to show, first, how the design and setup of mainstream VAAs are tacitly structured by a specific conception of the democratic aim at issue and, second, what some alternative positions on these questions are within contemporary political theory. In the final section, we will discuss some of the implications of this analysis for the responsibilities of VAA developers, and particularly for the procedural neutrality to which they are typically committed. Our conclusion will be that once these issues are identified, developers of VAAs should either argue in favour of their views on democratic competence, participation and representation, or they should rethink the design of VA As in ways that move beyond their current assumptions, or both.
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