Digital Technology and Civic Engagement: The Case of Vote Compass

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Political News Monday, December 14, 2015 View Count = 2333

Digital Technology and Civic Engagement: The Case of Vote Compass

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Digital Technology and Civic Engagement: The Case of Vote Compass” is written by Yannick Dufresne and Clifton van der Linden from Vox Pop Labs. 

Within just 96 hours of October's federal election, Yannick Dufresne, Clifton van der Linden and 64 other leading thinkers and political scientists in Canada each wrote a short, snappy analysis of the election. Never before have Canadian experts collaborated to produce such a complete—and fast—response to an election. Together with UBC Press, Samara is proud to bring you all 57 articles as part of the "Election 2015" blog series, the definitive look at all angles of the 42nd general election.  

Watch this space to get all the analyses. For a complete list of academics involved, click here

Elections are increasingly contested online, with digital emerging as a third front in the so-called air and ground offensives of campaign strategy. But digital technologies also enable new modes of citizenship and serve as platforms for democratic participation.

The grassroots digital initiatives that rose to prominence during the 2015 Canadian federal election campaign were largely focused on one of three strategic aims. The first was to increase voter turnout, with specific emphases on new voters and the youth vote. The second was to encourage strategic voting, largely in an effort to unseat Conservative incumbents in ridings where a Liberal or New Democratic Party candidate had a reasonable chance of success. The third was to increase political knowledge among the electorate by presenting information about the political parties in an engaging and accessible format.

The outcome of the federal election campaign offers anecdotal support for the efficacy of digital initiatives. Voter turnout campaigns such as Vote Nation and established youth-engagement organizations such as Apathy is Boring likely enjoy a measure of satisfaction at the spike in eligible voters who cast a ballot in Canada’s 42nd general election. Similarly, strategic voting initiatives such as Leadnow’s Vote Together campaign arguably take it as validation of their efforts that many of the ridings they targeted saw their recommended candidate emerge victorious.

Evidence from American studies suggests that there is good reason to suspect that online initiatives such as these do tend to boost civic engagement. Enthusiasm about the prospects of digital technology for enhancing public participation in the mechanics of government has even resulted in the emergence of a new class of technology known as civic tech. It is difficult, however, to gauge the impact that Canadian civic tech has had on participation. In very few cases do we have sufficient empirical evidence to determine whether Canadian initiatives have contributed to their desired outcomes.

One of those few cases where sufficient data exists to offer preliminary insight into the effects of civic tech is that of Vote Compass, a civic engagement application run during election campaigns. The premise of the application is simple: users are surveyed on a range of topics germane to a particular campaign and, on the basis of their responses, are provided with an assessment of their proximity to the political parties running for election.1

Vote Compass is a non-partisan initiative developed and operated by independent research organization Vox Pop Labs in consultation with some of Canada’s more distinguished political scientists. Its Canadian iterations—of which there have been ten to date—are sponsored and promoted by CBC-Radio Canada. Vote Compass registered upwards of 1.9 million unique users during the 2011 Canadian federal election and 1.8 million during the 2015 federal election.

The Vote Compass initiative has three primary aims: first, to increase electoral literacy by making available information regarding the policy proposals of the various political parties and helping users situate themselves in the political landscape; second, to hold parties accountable to their publicly-stated policy positions; and third, to compel parties to be responsive to the citizens they are serving by acting as a unique source of public opinion data. Of these, only the first is currently empirically verifiable.

The 2011 Canadian Election Study (CES), which asked respondents whether or not they used Vote Compass during the course of the election campaign, demonstrates a positive correlation between political knowledge and Vote Compass use. While this is a promising preliminary finding, CES data do not permit closer examination into the causal direction between the two variables. Respondents were asked political knowledge questions in the same wave as Vote Compass use, which prevents us from stating conclusively as to whether Vote Compass use increases knowledge or—conversely—whether knowledgeable users have a higher propensity to use Vote Compass. Of course, these effects are not mutually exclusive. Using statistical matching methods to disentangle the causal relationship produces results that indicate a positive effect of Vote Compass use on political knowledge, but more research is required to validate these preliminary findings.

The more noteworthy observation from the CES, however, concerns the relationship between the use of Vote Compass and voter turnout. Vote Compass was not designed as a get-out-the-vote initiative. Its operators are committed to promoting an informed vote above all else. But regression analyses show that the use of Vote Compass has a statistically significant effect on its users’ propensity to vote. That effect remains significant when controlling for conventional socio-demographics, political awareness, political interest, and partisanship. The effect on turnout is even stronger when analyzed by age group. The younger users are, the stronger the effect of using Vote Compass on their propensity to vote. For instance, voters aged 18 to 24 are estimated to be 10% more likely to vote after using Vote Compass than voters in the same age category that did not use the application.

The findings from the Vote Compass case are promising for proponents of civic tech in Canadian elections. While further research into the effects of Vote Compass and other civic engagement initiatives for electoral literacy and voter turnout is warranted, preliminary findings indicate that it had a meaningful and substantial effect on civic engagement in Canada in 2015.

1 For information on the Vote Compass methodology for determining user and party positions see http://voxpoplabs.com/votecompass/methodology.pdf. 

Dufresne

Yannick Dufresne is a Senior Analyst at Vox Pop Labs. Dufresne is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Political Science at Laval University. His work has appeared in the Canadian Journal of Political Science, Journal of Behavioral and Social Science, Parliamentary Affairs and Political Marketing in Canada (UBC Press, 2012).

vanderlinden

Clifton van der Linden is the Founder and Director at Vox Pop Labs. Clifton van der Linden is the creator of Vote Compass and a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is a frequent media commentator on elections, politics, and public opinion. His academic work has appeared in Political Science, The Canadian Journal of Opinion, and the Journal of International Law and International Relations.

You can also find this article in the e-book Canadian Election Analysis 2015: Communication, Strategy, and Democracy, which is available for download on UBC Press's website

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