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Vote Compass launches in Australia

Vote Compass, an online electoral literacy tool, launched in time for Australian election on Sept. 7 (Big Stock photo)

By the time they go to the polls on Sept. 7, more than one million Australians will have used the Vote Compass, an online electoral literacy tool, to explore how they fit in Australia’s political landscape.

Developed and run by a group of U of T PhD students, Vote Compass launched its Australian edition in partnership with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) for the country’s 2013 federal election. (Learn more about Vote Compass)

“It’s been a huge success,” says Clifton van der Linden, founder and executive director of Vote Compass. “It’s our first genuine international foray and speaks well of the tool’s global relevance.”

Within the first 72 hours of its launch, Vote Compass was the most visited page on the ABC website. In just three days, 500,000 people answered questions to see how they were plotted on the Australian political spectrum, and how their opinions aligned with the platforms of the major political parties.

Vote Compass made a splash on social media as well, with the #VoteCompass hashtag trending on Twitter across Australia for the first 48 hours after it was launched.

Similar to the Canadian experience, van der Linden believes the tool’s popularity speaks to a desire for people to learn more about public policies, without the grandstanding. “We’re leveraging the potential of the internet in such a way as to offer the public an opportunity and new way to be engaged in politics,” he says.

Vote Compass brings the technical and methodological expertise around the application, but relies on partnerships with academics for the political and electoral context. “This ensures the tool is actually speaking to the issues that matter most to voters and how those issues are dividing party policies,” says van der Linden.

The Vote Compass team includes three other PhD candidates in U of T’s Department of Political Science:  Yannick Dufresne (communications), Gregory Eady (analytics) and Jennifer Hove (research).

Together, they worked with seven academics from the Universities of Melbourne and Sydney to develop the 30 questions that make up the questionnaire. As well as standard topics such as education, budget and health care, the Australian version includes questions about asylum seekers, natural resources and indigenous peoples.

Jennifer Hove, Vote Compass’s director of research, is responsible for developing the questions and gathering information about party platforms. She says Vote Compass tries to represent the political debate with a good range of issues, viewpoints and ideologies.

One challenge is to ensure the questions are representing important public policies while remaining accessible to a broad spectrum of voters, she says. “We want to hook as many different kinds of people as we possibly can and engage people who maybe wouldn’t otherwise be politically interested.”

Hove says Vote Compass has added value for both participants who want to learn more. “Citizens are given new access to dig into party positions on issues,” she says. “Through Vote Compass, they can understand more about the parties and compare their platforms.”

The sheer number of participants also means Vote Compass has access to an unprecedented amount of data about public perceptions of politics. The entire team is involved in analyzing and packaging the data to be used in reports, political analyses and commentary by ABC and academic partners.

“As an electoral literacy tool, one of Vote Compass’s critical functions is to give voice to the electorate,” says van der Linden. “We have a responsibility to use that data to reflect the voice of voters in an effort to hold politicians accountable to the publics they represent.”

The innovative application, which is being touted as a Canadian success story by the Canadian High Commissioner in Australia, is now in its seventh edition. It was used in the last US presidential election as well as federal and provincial elections in Canada.

“Vote Compass doesn’t tell people how to vote,” says van der Linden. “But it makes people think about public policies in a fun way that lets them learn something about both the parties and themselves.”

Vote Compass was part of the inaugural cohort of the Creative Destruction Lab at the Rotman School of Business and The Next 36 Pilot Program.  Van der Linden says these programs both contributed to its growth.