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Vote Compass launches U.S. election tool with Wall Street Journal

You may know whether you prefer Barack Obama’s policies or Mitt Romney’s way of thinking, but what about the ideas of Johnson, Goode or Stein?

Vote Compass has launched an American edition of its popular online voter engagement tool, in partnership with the Wall Street Journal, to promote discussion about the issues in the upcoming presidential election. (Johnson, Goode and Stein are the lesser known candidates for the Libertarian, Constitution and Green parties, respectively.)

“Vote Compass helps people get a fundamental sense of where they fall on the political spectrum and of the big issues in the election,” says Peter Loewen, an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto Mississauga and director of operations for Vote Compass. “It’s an effective, neutral and non-confrontational way to start a conversation about politics and provide context to an ever-changing political environment.”

Vote Compass leads people through 30 questions based on hot-button issues, personal values and public policy. For the American edition, sections include taxation, government spending, law and order and the environment.

When complete, the tool provides a comparison of the user’s political opinions with those of each presidential candidate. An easy-to-understand grid demonstrates the space the user, and the candidates, occupy in the political landscape.

This is the fifth edition of the Vote Compass tool, which was used for the 2011 Canadian federal election, the 2011 Ontario provincial election and the 2012 Alberta and Quebec provincial elections. During the federal election, almost two million people completed the tool, with 50,000 accessing it on the first day. “People like talking about politics,” says Loewen.

To customize the tool for each election, Vote Compass collaborates with networks of local academics, Loewen says.

“We can’t have the same questions for every election, so we work with advisory groups – who naturally know their political system better than we do – and develop the questions together.”

The process can take weeks to ensure the questions are as accurate and non-partisan as possible. Questions are chosen to reflect different ways of thinking about politics and motivations that can influence a person’s choice, such as specific issues and general world-view.

For Clifton van der Linden, founder of Vote Compass and its executive director, the tool’s significance is its ability to empower voters through information.

“Having more substantive conversations about public policy contributes to a more robust democracy,” he says. “Talking with friends and family about the directions in which your community can be taken is essential for true civic engagement.”

Van der Linden, a political science doctoral candidate at U of T, points out that with regard to policy, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are the two most centrist of the candidates.

“A broader discussion could be happening based on both sides of the political spectrum,” he says. “If you only consider the policies of those two candidates you are not capturing the whole range of possibility.”

He stresses that the tool is not about telling people how to vote, and Loewen agrees, pointing out that for the most part the tool reflects back to people what they already know about themselves. “The goal of the tool is to help people understand why they are where they are on the political spectrum and how they could differ from another person's position,” Loewen says.

Not only does the tool provide fodder for public discussion, it is a rich data source for political scientists like Loewen, who is anticipating several papers to come from the U.S. edition. In particular, he and other academics will be using the data provided by users to examine the connection between people’s social networks and their political views, and why they vote the way they do.

For Loewen, Vote Compass is representative of a long tradition of academics at the University of Toronto being involved in civic life. “Our political science department at UTM is very interested in engaging in public life. Vote Compass is a real continuation of that responsibility and that engagement.”