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.
“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: firstname.lastname@example.org