Could the Vote Compass help increase voter turnout?

Spring 2016

Research by PhD student Valérie-Anne Mahéo shows that increasing access to information on political parties helps even out socioeconomic-based differences in people’s motivation to vote.

By Maria Turner

Valérie-Anne Mahéo is interested in what motivates people, specifically what motivates them to become politically engaged. “I was interested in what we can do to engage people who are not already active or interested in politics,” says the doctoral student in political science at McGill University.

This interest grew out of her Master’s project, which focused on political engagement in youth. “In the media, youth are often depicted as being apolitical and apathetic. I wanted to dig into that a bit more,” Mahéo says. In fact, what she found was the contrary: young people were politically engaged but through a diverse set of political actions, not necessarily through the electoral process. “This was in the early 2000s and many young people were involved in the anti-globalization movement,” she explains.

After completing her Master’s, Mahéo became interested in another segment of the population. What about the people who are not activists and who are not voting, especially those who might be socially or economically disadvantaged? she wondered.

Mahéo devised a research project to tackle these questions. During the 2014 provincial elections in Quebec, she exposed people to an online voting aid application, in this case the Vote Compass, which provided information about the different political parties and their platforms. She then surveyed people to see how exposure to this information affected their interest in and knowledge of politics and their motivation to vote.

In order to make sure she had a cross section of the population, Mahéo took to the street in a demographically diverse neighbourhood to find her research subjects. “Usually it’s more knowledgeable citizens who will look for political websites,” she explains. “We wanted to know: if we offer equal access to all citizens, are we going to see the same effects?”

Mahéo found that those who were more knowledgeable about politics in the first place were better able to learn information through the application, but that those who were less interested to begin with experienced a greater increase in motivation to participate. “When I measured the intention to vote, there was a 13 per-cent-point increase — this is pretty huge,” says Mahéo.

Although her research sample included only a few hundred people, Mahéo believes that the implications are far larger. “If we can better target the offer of the application, it has the potential to reduce political inequalities,” she says.

First comes the increase in motivation and then — with time and effort — will come an increase in voter turnout, she hopes.

Valérie-Anne Mahéo’s research was funded by the Centre for the Study of Democratic Citizenship, the Dean of Arts Development Fund (McGill University), the Fonds de recherche du Québec – Société et culture and the international project Making Electoral Democracy Work. Her doctoral research project also benefited from a partnership with Le Directeur Général des Élections du Québec.

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