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New online app accused of leading voters astray

Martin Weaver
Contributor

With an upcoming federal election getting closer by the day, a new online application has many prospective voters becoming more engaged in Canadian politics – one click at a time.

The Vote Compass, which is available through CBCNews.ca, gives participants 30 statements – ranging from financial to environmental, to immigration, to a whole host of other prominent issues in Canadian politics – to which they respond on a spectrum from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree”. The answers are then tabulated and used to determine which party platform most closely aligns with the participants’ answers. The answers are then automatically plotted in a four-quadrant grid labeled with “economic right”, “economic left”, social liberalism”, and “social conservatism” in relation to the platforms of Canada’s five most prominent political parties.

As explained on Vote Compass’ website, “The selection of statements is based on a scientific methodology known as content analysis. Based on the assumption that the issues that are frequently emphasized by parties are obviously important to them, the academic team extensively analyzes the issues parties emphasize in their platforms and other policy proposals, on their websites, and elsewhere. A parallel analysis is conducted on media content published since the previous Canadian federal election in order to assess which issues have featured prominently in Canadian political discourse.”

Vote Compass, which is modeled after a similar online application available in Europe, is an academic project developed by a team of Canadian political scientists – including an advisory panel comprised of, according to Vote Compass’ website, “the country’s most prominent scholars in the study of electoral politics.”

“What we’re trying to say is, based on these 30 questions, here’s where the parties fall,” explained Clifton Van Der Linden, a University of Toronto political science PhD candidate and executive director of Vote Compass. “You can be a Conservative, an NDP, or any ideological stripe. The tool is not meant to tell you to change that stripe at all.”

Despite the intentions of the creators of Vote Compass, the application has garnered its fair share of controversy since being introduced last week.

While most of the controversy surrounding Vote Compass is a result of participants misinterpreting the purpose of the application, a perceived Liberal-bias in the Vote Compass has many up in arms.

Kathy Brock, a political science professor at Queens University, was one of the first to denounce Vote Compass on grounds of a Liberal-bias in the application.

After completing the quiz a number of times with varying strategies, Brock said each strategy led her to the Liberal designation. Over the course of five attempts, Brock first answered all 30 statements with “somewhat agree”. Then, on a second attempt, with “somewhat disagree”, then again with “strongly agree”, then with “strongly disagree”, and finally, she responded with the neutral response of “neither agree nor disagree.” For the final portion of the quiz, where users rank leaders based on competence and trustworthiness, Brock said she consistently answered with “I don’t know.”

“Each time, I came up in the centre, so I would be labeled a Liberal,” she said, “There’s a problem with having only the Liberals in the centre, because I don’t think that’s a fair representation of how the parties are putting together their platforms for this campaign, or even generally.”

“Vote Compass is something we have introduced as a means for people to engage with the issues on the election,” said Jeff Keay, a spokesperson for the CBC. “There is [no bias] – not as far as we know. We have a high level of confidence that the methodology is sound.”

Although both the disclaimer and Frequently Asked Questions pages on Vote Compass’ site confess that the application is by no means comprehensive, there is a noticeable lack of questions regarding issues many Canadians find important. For instance, any mention of Aboriginal issues.

While Vote Compass isn’t meant, as the disclaimer on the application’s website claims, to provide voting advice for anyone, the tool has be used to generate interest and discussion of the election and Canadian politics more generally – exactly the intention of its creators. 

“If people are engaging with this discussion on Canadian politics and the ideological structure of our landscape, then I think that’s part of the idea of the tool,” said van der Linden.

As Jeff Sallot, a former bureau chief for the Globe and Mail who currently teaches journalism at Carleton University, put it in his April 2 article in the Ottawa Citizen, “In its limited way, Vote Compass is using new digital tools to spark a bit of old fashioned political talk around the water coolers of the nation. Not a bad thing.”

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