Deciding who to vote for in an election can be difficult. In order to make an informed decision, voters have to investigate the policies of each candidate or party – not a simple task.
The voters of Dublin South-West and Roscommon-South Leitrim will be asked to make this decision next week in the Dáil byelections.
For most other complex decisions, there are online tools that make it easier to compare the alternatives. We can compare hotels, cars, supermarket prices, or even potential partners online.
And for this byelection, as a result of a partnership between the University of Limerick, where I am a lecturer, and The Irish Times, voters will be able to compare candidates online on WhichCandidate.ie.
To compile the information for the site, all the candidates were presented with a range of policy issues that are relevant in the election and were asked where they stand on each.
Visitors to the website just have to indicate where they stand on the same set of issues in order to find out which candidates share their views.
Users of WhichCandidate.ie can choose to ignore issues that are not important to them, and compare candidates only on the issues that they care about.
As well as seeing which candidates are closest to them on average, users can look at each candidate separately to see where exactly they agree and disagree.
Users are not asked for any identifying information and are free to visit the site as often as they like.
For some, this will seem like a trivialisation of politics, a bit like a dating site for voters and candidates. A criticism we have encountered is that voters would be better served by engaging with candidates on the doorsteps or reading the parties’ manifestos.
Our response is that WhichCandidate should be viewed as a complement to, rather than replacement of, other forms of information-gathering by voters.
Door-to-door canvassing is important, but rarely leads to meaningful discussion. Election manifestos tend to avoid controversial issues and are seldom read by voters.
Lack of information is one of the main reasons for voter abstention, so providing clear and easily digestible information in a candidate-comparison tool can encourage participation. It also focuses voters’ attention on the policy differences between the candidates, which is ultimately what elections should be about.
Local election trial
The response from candidates has been very encouraging. The majority of candidates in both byelection constituencies have participated and made their views publicly available.
There are real differences between the candidates on a wide range of economic and social issues, including Government spending, water charges, Jobbridge internships, health insurance, asylum provision, distressed mortgage relief and same-sex marriage.
Voters also appear to have an appetite for a candidate-comparison tool. The site was tested in the run-up to the local elections in Limerick earlier this year. Even though local elections tend to deal with what many view as less significant policy matters, the site was used heavily by voters during the final weeks of the campaign.
We hope to make the website available in all constituencies for the next general election. This is a significant task, as there are likely to be more than 500 candidates running across the country.
If the demand is there from voters, candidates will have an incentive to participate. The result, we hope, will be greater transparency by candidates and better informed voters.
Rory Costello is a lecturer in the department of politics and public administration at the University of Limerick