Dr Aaron Martin, a political scientist at the University of Melbourne, is one of the academic advisors to the Vote Compass (Australia) project. Here he explains to Election Watch the basics of the initiative.
Imagine a tool that made it easy for citizens to learn about the different policy positions of the parties and then gave voice to public opinion on substantive policy issues. Vote Compass, we hope, is that tool.
As of November 10, the Victorian edition of Vote Compass had attracted more than 58,500 responses. This follows a hugely successful debut of Vote Compass in Australia during the 2013 federal election in which more than one million responses were registered. Vote Compass, it seems, is on its way to becoming a permanent part of the agenda in Australian politics.
The Victorian edition of Vote Compass is a non-profit and non-partisan collaboration between the Canadian founders of the tool, the ABC and Election Watch/University of Melbourne (through the Melbourne School of Government). As a University of Melbourne academic I have served (alongside Nick Reece, Mark Triffitt and others) on the Steering Committee of both the federal and Victorian editions of Vote Compass.
The main aim of Vote Compass is to serve as an electoral literacy application. It offers a user-friendly platform through which Victorians can complete a short questionnaire and reflect on their policy preferences and how these align with the political parties. The issues covered are intended to capture those that are fundamentally important to Victoria as well as those that are salient in the current election campaign. In the end, we hope this results in more informed public discussion and a more engaged citizenry.
Vote Compass works by respondents completing a short questionnaire with the responses being plotted against the positions of the political parties on both a social and economic axis. The political party’s positions are established through extensive research (conducted through the University of Melbourne) of publically available records which are used to position the parties on different issues. We then engage parties to review and, if necessary, challenge our calibrations before Vote Compass is launched. Such a process is both fair and transparent to parties and improves the validity of the instrument.
Vote Compass also serves as a unique collection of ‘big data’ in which the views of tens of thousands of people are collated and then reported on, providing greater discussion of policy positions – although the sample is not necessarily representative demographic weighting allows us to, in effect, infer population averages. For example, if the public hold view x but the position of the parties is z then the Vote Compass data will highlight that and provide talking points in the media. In other words, Vote Compass gives ordinary citizens a voice by way of reporting aggregated responses to particular issues that parties then may choose to respond to in the election campaign. This should result in greater discussion about policy, rather than personalities.
What explains the success of Vote Compass? Democracy rests on a well informed public. Yet, the costs for citizens obtaining information about politics is often high. Citizens can hardly be blamed for not becoming highly informed about politics given these costs. In an increasingly fractured media landscape that more often reports on the noise rather than the signal Vote Compass provides a short-cut for citizens to learn more about the positions of the parties. The success of Vote Compass reflects what seems to be a greater appetite for policy among the public than is reflected in much coverage of politics.
Impartial and independent coverage of the substantive policy issues that will affect Victorians' lives in the future is thin on the ground. Vote Compass aims to counter this negative trend by providing objective, transparent coverage of the political landscape. Such coverage was becoming harder to find, until now that is.
To get started with Vote Compass, click HERE.