VAA History

The History of VAAs in a Nutshell

What can be considered the ‘‘ancestor’’ of all VAAs—the StemWijzer—was developed in 1989 by the Dutch Stichting Burgerschapskunde (SBK: Citizenship Foundation) in collaboration with the Documentatiecentrum Nederlanse Politieke Partijen (DNPP: Documentation Centre of Dutch Political Parties) and the faculty of Political Management of the University of Twente. The StemWijzer package consisted in a booklet containing 60 statements taken from political party programs and a diskette, and was primarily aimed for junior high-school education. The booklet was fairly popular, especially in the educational sector. However, not more than 50 floppy-disc copies were sold. Eventually, the creators of StemWijzer started considering the possibility to exploit the full potential of emerging ICTs.

An internet-based StemWijzer was released a few years later, on the occasion of the 1998 Dutch parliamentary elections. Despite the rather wide outreach of the project and publicity invested into the StemWijzer, its use among Dutch voters remained rather limited. In that year, only 6,500 voters used the internet-based version of the VAA. The intention of its creators to persist in their effort—supported by the parallel spread of internet access among the population at large—proved to be a winning choice after all. During the two consecutive elections in 2002 and 2003, strongly tainted by the extraordinary rise and subsequent murder of Pim Fortuyn, StemWijzer grew into the most used political application on the internet by Dutch voters. From 50 sold booklets in 1989, via the 6,500 online users in 1998, the number of users now reached the figure of two million, only to reach about five million during the following elections of 2006. Based on these figures, the most recent versions of StemWijzer were used by the equivalent of roughly one out of two Dutch voters.

With the beginning of the new millenium, the highly successful experience of StemWijzer made its incursion into several other countries. This is the case of Germany, where Wahl-O-Mat was fielded for the first time in 2002 and attracted more than 30 million users ever since. Further versions of the Dutch pioneering VAA also appeared in Bulgaria (Glasovoditel) and Switzerland (Politarena).

The Swiss application was ‘‘challenged’’ already in 2003 by smartvote, a VAA developed by Politools. The first version of smartvote provided over 255,000 voting advices as compared to the 135,000 issued by Politarena. In only four years, the use of smartvote had increased almost fourfold, with roughly one million voting advices issued in 2007.

Besides Switzerland and Germany, Belgium (Flanders) has also been inspired by the Dutch example. In 2004, the Flemish public broadcaster VRT launched Doe de Stem Test!—a VAA for the regional elections of that year. Due to its intrinsic connection with the homonym TV-show, the Flemish VAA was able to issue over 840,000 voting advices during that campaign.

A similar media-driven development can be observed in the case of Finland. There, the Finnish public broadcasting company developed the first VAA already in 1996. Following this example, Helsingin Sanomat (the largest daily newspaper in the country) built its own application for the 1999 European Parliamentary elections. In 2001, as many as eleven different VAAs were available to Finnish voters. This figure rises up to over twenty during the 2007 election campaign, with the most popular among these applications attracting over one million users.

Most recently, VAAs continued to mushroom across Europe and beyond. Focusing only on VAA versions that have been developed for national level elections, over 40 online tools of this kind have been implemented in Europe. Apart from very few exceptions, all European countries can be considered familiar with VAAs. In some nations, more than one VAA has been launched, in particular among the early-movers, leading to sometimes fierce competition between several VAA providers.

The Dutch Kieskompas is a telling example in this respect. Developed as an open attempt to overcome the shortcomings inherent to the StemWijzer methodology, it evolved into one of the most established VAA applications in the Netherlands. The Kieskompas prototype was transferred to many other countries (e.g. Belgium, France, Israel, Portugal, Sweden, Turkey as well as several Arabian and Southern American countries) and also served as a prototype for the EU Profiler at the European elections of 2009.

Source: Garzia, Diego, Alexander H. Trechsel, Kristjan Vassil, and Elias Dinas (2014). ‘Indirect Campaigning: Past, Present and Future of Voting Advice Applications’, in: Bernard Grofman, Alexander H. Trechsel and Mark Franklin (eds.), The Internet and Democracy in Global Perspective. Cham: Springer International Publishing, 25–41.

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