By Alex Dobson, Emily Rainsford and Oliver Sidorczuk
Even when a choice seems quite straightforward, like in the recent European Union referendum, elections can seem confusing, with complex jargon and an increasing number of parties to consider. With the continuing decline of voting according to traditional party ideologies and identities, combined the worryingly low voter turnout amongst young people in particular – just 43% in 2015 General Election – the need for mechanisms to engage voters has never been greater.
The EU referendum illustrated a great divide in the preferences between older and younger people. Despite turnout among 18-24 year olds reaching 64%, young people had their desire to remain in the EU thwarted by being outnumbered in turnout by the older generation. Voter advice applications (VAAs) have immense potential in to mobilise groups that traditionally do not turn up to vote. With the decline of identity voting and upsurge in issue voting, VAAs help potential voters overcome the barrier of information overload by asking users whether they agree or disagree with a series of policy statements ahead of an election.
The VAA then matches the responses of the user with the responses from parties or candidates, and then presents the user with a result of how closely they align with the different parties or candidates in the race. This helps users in a nuanced way understand which party or candidate is closest aligned to their own values, interests and opinions.
‘Verto’ is a VAA aimed specifically at younger citizens and others who might otherwise be put off by formal politics, with accessibility at its core; users simply swipe right to agree with a policy, and left to disagree – a ‘Tinder for politics’. Launched for the last General Election in 2015, ‘Verto’ was a valuable addition to the growing ranks of VAAs and empowered over 425,000 people to explore their political preferences (40% of whom were aged 18-25 years old).
In engaging those that might be underrepresented by conventional sampling methods – those ‘furthest away from politics’ – the attitudes revealed by VAAs such as ‘Verto’ also offer a useful complement to opinion polling, amplifying the voices of their users. In 2015, ‘Verto’ users were in general socially liberal, expressed mixed attitudes on welfare and supported increased taxes for the well-off. Opinions were more balanced when it came to government spending, although a slender majority of favoured spending cuts. Users also supported ‘green’ environmental policies, and chose to prioritise health, education and the economy.
Full details of ‘Verto’ (2015) are available in the report ‘Evaluating Verto’, which launched in April in the Houses of Parliament as an element of the broader work of the APPG on Democratic Participation. As a collaboration between Bite The Ballot (a movement devoted to youth political engagement), Demos, the Political Studies Association and other academics, ‘Verto’ also speaks to the rich synergies possible in interactions across different sectors.
It was fantastic to see so many different organisations, academics, MPs and civic tech leaders represented at the launch event. Those running VAAs have much to learn from and share with each other, particularly given the limitations in matching users to parties (the most problematic aspect of these apps), and pluralism is to be greatly celebrated.
A revised, improved version of ‘Verto’ – Verto.London – was available to help guide young Londoners ahead of the recent Mayoral elections. Thousands of 18-24 year olds used the app from ahead of 5 May. Of the nine topics included in the VAA, young Londoners’ top three priorities were education (64%), housing (44%) and jobs (38%).
While both genders were generally agreed on education and housing as being a priority, young women listed health and wellbeing among their priorities, whilst men listed the economy. And interestingly, while 84% of women said they wanted images of unhealthily thin models to be banned from public transport, 62% of male ‘Verto’ users said the same.
As raised at Jeremy Corbyn’s recent digital democracy manifesto launch, it’s clear ‘there is a huge thirst for people to get more involved in devising policy making and having a say in politics’. VAAs can only play a more central role in fulfilling this appetite – and apps like ‘Verto’ can only continue to prise open the inner workings of UK democracy.
About the authors
Alex Dobson is a PhD student in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. His staff profile is available here.
Emily Rainsford is Research Associate at the School of Geography, Politics and Sociology at the University of Newcastle. Her staff profile is available here.
Oliver Sidorczuk is formerly of Bite the Ballot. He tweets @OliverSidorczuk.