In representative democracies, recurring elections provide the crucial link between public preferences and government policies. This link assumes citizens can match their preferences to the pledges made by political parties, and that parties fulfil their pledges once in government (Powell 2004). The link between preferences and policies, however, is imperfect, because oftentimes citizens are imperfectly informed about the promises of political parties (Alvarez, 1996), and/or they experience difficulties in casting an informed vote as the costs to collect and interpret the required information usually outweigh the perceived benefits of voting (Downs, 1957, pp. 273–274).
Voting Advice Applications (VAAs) are technological solutions that aim to address the issue of citizen competence by reducing the information asymmetries inherent among citizens of different educational and income groups. VAAs engage citizens into thinking about political issues, and provide them with information about the positions of political parties on these issues. The idea is that this public and freely accessible information can empower citizens by making them more competent in holding politicians accountable when casting their votes. The key output of a VAA is a political match, i.e., information about how well a voters' political preferences match those of different political parties and candidates.
Government agencies originally developed VAAs as civic education tools with the intention to enhance political knowledge and increase electoral participation. The most popular VAA in The Netherlands, StemWijzer, was first developed in 1989 as an educational tool for high schools. Since the early 2000s, StemWijzer has served as a blueprint for many other VAAs, such as Wahl-O-Mat in Germany, as well being the precursor to other types of VAA designs, such as those of the Swiss-based Smartvote. The rise of the internet brought an ever-increasing amount of users while also fuelling the spread of VAAs across Europe. VAAs have now become a more prominent and generalised feature of the European political landscape (Garzia & Marschall 2014), and are become increasingly visible in countries outside Europe as well (Liao et al. 2016).
However, despite early uptake and popularity, it is not at all clear whether these VAA tools have achieved their goals. This is partly due to the fact that the VAA scholarly community has been following lines of research that are often detached from the study of political representation and political behaviour more generally. The proposed workshop, therefore, aims to create a bridge between the scholars of these communities by inviting papers that specifically address the link between VAAs on the one hand, and political participation and representation on the other. The proposed workshop will build upon the groundwork laid by ECPR Research Network on Voting Advice Applications during ECPR Research Sessions (Florence 2012), and VAA Sections at ECPR General Conferences (Bordeaux 2014, Montreal 2015, Prague 2016, and forthcoming Oslo 2017), to address scholars outside the ECPR RN on VAAs in order to explore pertinent questions in political representation and participation seen from a VAA perspective or with VAA-generated data.
For instance, in the area of political representation although there have been studies that looked at which issues that make it into VAAs (Van Camp et al. 2014), where is little connection to the long established research on how citizens prioritize issues (Wlezien 2016). The field of VAAs has been a for developing and applying novel methods of estimating parties’ policy positions resulting in large scale data collection efforts (Garzia et al. 2015, Gemenis 2015, Gemenis & Van Ham 2014), but there has been relatively little use of these data in the study of political representation (Bright et al. 2016, Fivaz et al. 2014, Lefkofridi & Katsanidou 2014), compared to the voluminous literature on the use of party manifesto data (see Budge & Klingemann 2013). Similarly, VAAs are often generators of data comparable to candidate/elite surveys which, with a few exceptions (Hansen & Rasmussen 2013, Dumont et al. 2014), have not seen as much use as regular elite surveys. Finally, VAA scholars have only recently picked up on the ethical and normative issues concerning the design of the VAAs with regards to representation (Anderson & Fossen 2014, Fossen & Anderson 2014, Fossen & Van den Brink 2015).
In the area of political participation and behaviour more generally, despite the proliferation of studies that have investigated the impact of VAAs on electoral turnout using election survey data (Garzia et al. 2014, Gemenis and Rosema 2014, Marschall & Schultze 2012), none of them attempted to disaggregate the effect of VAAs in terms of their content, as it has been the case in the well-established tradition of voting turnout experiments where the mode and content of canvassing are used as experimental treatments (Green & Gerber 2015). Moreover, there have been numerous studies comparing the different algorithms VAAs use to match voters to parties and/or candidates (Mendez 2012, Louwerse & Rosema 2014, Van der Linden & Dufresne 2017), but it was only very recently that these insights were applied to the study of vote choice (Mendez 2017), which is surprising considering that VAA-generated data provide ample opportunities to test directional and proximity models in voting behaviour (Lewis & King 2000). More generally, VAAs often allow the study of the dimensionality of political space at the national, subnational, and supranational level (Garry et al. 2016, Mendez & Wheatley 2014, Wheatley et al. 2014), although such studies are not integrated in the related debate in mainstream political science (e.g. Gabel & Hix 2002, Bakker et al. 2012).
Furthermore, from a methodological perspective, the VAA field have been dominated by observational studies with only a few randomized experiments (Enyedi 2016, Mahéo 2016), in contrast to the general trend for a more experimental political science (see Druckman et al. 2006). More generally, the VAA studies have been slow to incorporate methodological advances prominent in the study of political behaviour, from optimizing a questionnaire (Pasek & Krosnick 2010), to weighting the non-representative data (Wang et al. 2015).
The proposed workshop aims to bridge these gaps between VAA studies and the study of political representation and participation, by bringing together scholars from these fields to discuss and exchange perspectives. To achieve this the proposed workshop will invite papers that explicitly address questions that are of interest to both VAA and political representation or political participation scholars. Designing VAAs without insights from political science hinders our understanding of the impact of VAAs. For instance, the literature on political participation can be useful to pinpoint and reach those groups that are more need of political information among which VAAs can potentially have the most impact. Conversely, the study of political participation and representation has can be advanced with the use of large-scale VAA-generated data. For instance, VAAs provide a fertile ground for recruiting participants beyond the narrow university student base for conducting randomized experiments online or offline. In terms of outputs, the proposed workshop aims to follow-up the Garzia & Marschall (2014) ECPR Press volume that mapped the VAA field with an edited volume which could enrich political science research in the fields of political participation and representation in the age of big data.
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