Online voter tools

The Tinderization of Democracy

Europawahl Spitzenkandidaten bei Start Wahl-O-Mat in Berlin
That's not the party I wanted. Source: Picture alliance

Germany’s cities are plastered with smiling faces, a patchwork of posters telling voters to put the environment first, to choose bikinis over burqas, to succeed in Europe or to fight for rent controls. With 34 parties on offer, this motley mix leaves many voters confused. Navigating the maze of policies and platforms is especially hard for first-time voters, from the young to the “Brexit refugees” and other immigrants who have recently acquired German citizenship.

That’s why many voters are seeking help from an online tool (sorry, only available in German) in deciding which of the many parties suits them best. This tool is a multiple choice questionnaire sponsored by the German government and called “Wahl-O-Mat,” which translates roughly as a vote-o-meter. Launched in 2002, it is now a standard pre-election ritual.

“It was pretty quick, actually,” says Louis Priven, a teacher from Los Angeles who became a German citizen this year. “And interesting.” Users like him respond to 38 questions, about everything from defense spending to wealth taxes, diesel engines and marijuana legalization. They can then assign weights to their answers based on which matter more to them, and which less. Out pops a political party: the one the algorithm considers the best match. They can also index their worldview to the manifestos of eight parties in total.

The Wahl-O-Mat is popular, judging by the difficulties the servers are having in meeting the surge in demand in the past three weeks. But it’s not exactly very entertaining, admits Armin Berger, the political scientist who is the brain behind the Wahl-O-Mat as chief of design agency 3pc. Before each election, he and his editorial team sift through the party manifestos and contact political parties to clarify points as needed. Then a team of experts and young voters works on the questionnaire. The tool is popular, Mr. Berger says, because nobody reads the party programs, which can run to 100 pages, and this is a convenient short-cut.

Edna Hass, an Israeli of German descendants, in general does not think highly of politicians but Angela Merkel is different and she will vote for her. "She is touched by her past," Ms. Hass said. "We need her to stand up to Putin, Trump, Erdogan, that crazy guy in North Korea." She is an older Israeli freshly turned German and talked to friends and followed chats on Facebook before deciding how to vote in Sunday’s election. She is sickened at the prospects of the AfD – "the Nazis, I will call them what they are" – entering the Bundestag.
It's the first time Yesser Afghani has voted in an election where his choice might make a difference. Voting "is interesting and different and important," he told Handelsblatt Global. He is a politics student from Syria who moved to Germany eight years ago and became a citizen this year. He is reading the programs and still figuring out which party to pick. In Syria, there were no elections, just referendums where it didn't matter whether people wrote "yes" or "no."
British Gaby Pinkner moved to Germany in 2000 and can finally vote. "Now I have the chance, it feels like quite a responsibility. It’s not about voting for the party I want to win like it is in the UK, it’s about the kind of coalition I’d like to see," she told Handelsblatt Global. "For me personally SPD would probably be best; for my freelance husband FDP; for my kids, the Greens with their commitment to investing in education. But for Germany, I feel like Angela Merkel is still the best person to represent us in an increasingly populist world." She is reading “Bedtime Stories for Rebel Girls” with her two daughters and the stories of Emily Pankhurst and Kate Sheppard remind her how important it is to use the vote those women fought for.
Samuel Drapeau is a math professor from France teaching in Shanghai, and became a German citizen four years ago, too late for the last election. This time, he'll choose based on how the parties address politics, international affairs, and specifically Brexit and China. Come Sunday, his decision will be based on knowledge of the parties gleaned from the German and English-language press available in China.
Charlotte Noblet, a French journalist based in Marseille, lived in Berlin for eight years and has voted in the German elections. She decided deliberately not to vote on Sunday, telling Handelsblatt Global, "I want to vote where I live. that is why I became a German citizen – as a Berliner, I wanted to vote in Germany. But now I live in Marseille and vote in France. For me, the right to vote should be tied to where people live, not to their nationality. That's my view as a citizen – though I'm not sure whether this is a French or a German thought!"

“What’s special about it the Wahl-O-Mat is everything that it isn’t,” Mr. Berger adds. It has no ads and no videos. The decision-making process is supposed to take place purely in the mind of the user. Ideally, voters discover a party that matches what they care about even if it wasn’t what they assumed. That often yields surprises. Some are delightful, others awkward: Spare a thought for the leader of one German party who publicly tested the Wahl-O-Mat and, to her embarrassment, was matched with a rival party.

But the Wahl-O-Mat has its critics, who argue that it is little more than a banal pastime. Elections are not only about parties and positions but also about people, said Christoph Bieber, a politics professor at Duisberg-Essen University: “What if the tool tells you you’re a Social Democrat but you can’t stand their main candidate?” Nor can the tool reflect the possible coalitions that parties might form after being elected, and thus the actual policy mix the ballot choice might bring about.

And what about all the questions the Wahl-O-Mat could ask but doesn’t? Mr. Bieber notes that digitalization, where Germany lags but which matters hugely to young people, barely registers in the Wahl-O-Mat. Even when the tool picks up an issue, it necessarily reduces complex trade-offs to simplistic bullet points. Is this not a bowdlerization of democratic debate?

One new vote-advice app (though not the government-sponsored one) even uses a swipe function similar to that of the dating app Tinder, as Mr. Bieber points out. Meh, swipe left; ooh-la-la, swipe right. Just conceivably, that is not what Germany’s postwar founding fathers had in mind when they signed the constitution of 1949.


Allison Williams is deputy editor of Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author:

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