German election: Wahl-O-Mat App pairs voters with political parties

How well will German political leaders score when quizzed on their own party's platform? The latest Wahl-O-Mat has the answer - and it can also lend a hand to the nearly 50 percent of undecided voters in Germany.

Animal rights, weapons exports, health care, fake news, refugees, sovereign debt, retirement and marijuana legalization. Those are just some of the issues on voters' minds ahead of Germany's federal election next month - and some of the issues the Wahl-O-Mat, Germany's official voting advice application (VAA), quizzes its users on.

With a reported 46 percent of voters undecided on which way to cast their ballots, the unveiling of the latest Wahl-O-Mat on Wednesday came with an extra sense of buzz and anticipation.

Since first launching in 2002, the Wahl-O-Mat (roughly translated as "Vote-O-Meter") has become an engrained part of the German election process. At Wednesday's presentation in Berlin, the president of the Federal Agency for Civic Education (bpb), Thomas Krüger, described the voter tool as Germany's "democratic national sport."

Read more: #GermanyDecides: On the road to the elections​​​​​

The underlying principle of VVAs is straightforward: using a series of questions, the tool works out the user's political proximity to the political parties. All 33 parties on the election ballot across Germany, bar the Magdeburg Garden Party in Saxony-Anhalt, provided their input and authorized their policy stances.

While VVAs exist in many countries, few boast the kind of fanfare enjoyed by Germany's Wahl-O-Mat. According to Krüger, some 13.3 million users used the tool ahead of the last federal election in 2013 and, according to market research firm YouGov, one in three voters intend to consult the app in the three-and-a-half weeks leading up the federal election on September 24.

No wonder the general secretaries from all the major German parties were on stage to test out this year's edition, including Peter Tauber of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Hubertus Heil of the Social Democrats (SPD), which has sent Martin Schulz as its candidate for the Chancellery.

By young voters, for young voters

Since its inception 15 years ago, the Wahl-O-Mat's main focus has been to mobilize younger voters. In fact, all 38 questions posed in the app chosen by a group of young and first-time voters.

"Young people have contributed towards this product, which is aimed at furthering the political education," Krüger said. "That is what lies at the very core."

According to YouGov, half of all voters aged between 18 and 29 intend to consult the Wahl-O-Mat before casting their ballots.

The majority of those using the tool are already politically engaged, but around 6 percent to 10 percent of users go on to their cast their ballots after having previously expressed no interest in voting, according to Stefan Marschall of the Heinrich Heine University in Dusseldorf, who for years worked with the bpb in developing the voter tool.

Read more: Angela Merkel takes to YouTube to woo young voters

"We have found that among those who are usually more distanced from politics, the Wahl-O-Mat does have an effect on getting people to participate in the election," Marschall told DW. That could mean a one to two percent bearing on the total voter turnout.

An education, not a recommendation

Krüger emphasized during the unveiling that the tool should be treated as an educational tool, and not something that dictates to young voters which way to vote, pointing out that "the world is more complicated than an assertion made in the Wahl-O-Mat."

Dr. Stefan Marschall said the Wahl-O-Mat should be an entry into politics, not a withdrawal

"The voter's choice is of course much more complex and is usually affected by a host of other factors, namely the candidate, something that it isn't taken into account at all in the tool," said Marschall. "We state in the tool that it is intended to be an entry into politics, not a withdrawal from politics. When share and discuss their results on social, then the tool has fulfilled its purpose."

And besides, as Marschall points out, more often than not, people usually align with their preferred party anyway - a sign that the Wahl-O-Mat is working. 

How the party chairmen fared

If, as bpb President Krüger suggested, the Wahl-O-Mat does indeed rank among Germany's national sports, then its greatest spectacle is to see how closely the parties' officials align with their own party platforms.

Flanked by young volunteers, Tauber, Heil and their counterparts all registered their views on issues ranging from weapons exports to animal husbandry to get the app's recommendation on which party best suited them.

The CDU's Tauber kept up a steady stream of banter with the volunteers as he tapped away. Often the answers came easily. "The sale of cannabis should be legalized -  no I can't agree with that," he said, to which a volunteer to his left responded, "That's too bad."

The SPD's Heil scored a perfect 100 percent match with his party - 1 percentage point better than his CDU counterpart

On other issues, even the man in charge of Chancellor Angela Merkel's re-election campaign had to reflect for a bit. "The solidarity supplement with eastern Germans should be completely phased out by 2019 – it should be phased out but not fully because we've only just begun," said Tauber. "I'm going to have to stay neutral on that one."

In the end, he ended up in 99. "You lose, Tauber," the SPD's Hubertus Heil quipped after scoring a perfect 100 percent match with his party.

However, Tauber was quick to point that his 99 percent score rested on a technicality. "I said I was in favor of a ceiling," he said, referring to the number of asylum seekers arriving in Germany. The CDU manifesto makes no such pledge, although it does appear in the Christian Social Party's so-called "Bayern-Plan" (Bavaria Plan). As sister-parties, the Wahl-O-Mat groups the CDU and CSU together.

Still, with a two-digit lead in the polls, it's unlikely the CDU general secretary is too concerned about a 1 percentage point difference with the Wahl-O-Mat.

You can try the Wahl-O-Mat online or download the smart phone app.

A timeline of Germany's 2017 elections

Germany's big election year

The stakes are high for Germany's election year. With Chancellor Angela Merkel up for a fourth term and the populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party attempting to cash in on anti-migrant sentiment, one thing is clear - German politics won't be the same by the end of 2017. Here's a look at the most important dates.

A timeline of Germany's 2017 elections

March 26 - Saarland state parliament election

Germany's "super election year" kicked off in the small western state of Saarland, on the French border. Chancellor Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) came out on top, snagging over 40 percent of the vote and securing a third term for state premier Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (L). The populist AfD will also enter Saarland's parliament for the first time after claiming 6.2 percent of the vote.

A timeline of Germany's 2017 elections

May 7 - CDU victory in Schleswig-Holstein

State elections in northern Schleswig-Holstein saw Merkel's CDU overtaking the ruling Social Democrats (SPD) in a surprising upset. The CDU, led by top candidate Daniel Günther (above), won 32 percent of the vote while the SPD dropped three points to 27 percent. Anti-immigrant AfD will also enter the Schleswig-Holstein parliament after clearing the 5 percent hurdle.

A timeline of Germany's 2017 elections

May 14 - All eyes on NRW election

The CDU pulled off one of it's biggest victories yet, unseating the SPD in its stronghold in North Rhine-Westphalia. The business-friendly FDP also made significant gains and the AfD will also enter parliament after getting 7 percent. As Germany's most populous state with around 18 million residents, the NRW poll is seen as a test run for how the federal election will play out in September.

A timeline of Germany's 2017 elections

June 19 - Party applications due

The 97th day before the election is the cut off date for any party to announce its intention to run for the Bundestag. They have to submit their applications by 6 p.m. to the Federal Returning Officer. Roderich Egeler (above) oversees the election and heads Germany's Statistical Office.

A timeline of Germany's 2017 elections

July 7 - Who is allowed in?

On the 79th day before the election, the parties that are allowed to take part in the election are announced by the Federal Returning Officer. If a party does not agree with decision, it has four days to file a complaint with Germany's Constitutional Court.

A timeline of Germany's 2017 elections

July 17 - Who made the list?

Political parties in Germany have until the 69th day before the election to determine which candidates will be running in which constituency. These representatives make up the first vote on Germany's split ballot. Parties must also submit a list of candidates for the party vote on the second half of the ballot.

A timeline of Germany's 2017 elections

July 27 - Fighting for a spot on the ballot

Smaller parties that filed a suit with the Constitutional Court to be allowed to take part in the election will receive their verdicts today. This option has only been available since the last Bundestag election in 2013. At that time, 11 parties petitioned the court to appear on the ballot - but none were successful.

A timeline of Germany's 2017 elections

August 13 - Campaigning officially begins

Unlike other countries, parties in Germany cannot put up campaign posters or run TV ads until 6 weeks before the election. But on August 13, the campaign floodgates open and no lamp post will be safe from the cardboard visages of each party's main candidates.

A timeline of Germany's 2017 elections

August 20 - Who can vote?

A little over one month shy of the election, the most important list is compiled - the electoral register or voter list. In Germany, every citizen who is 18 years or older can vote in the general election - meaning there are 61.5 million eligible voters this year.

A timeline of Germany's 2017 elections

September 3 - Three weeks to go

At this point, all eligible voters should have recieved an authorization certificate in the mail. People who aren't already on the voter list still have time to register. Those who wish to vote-by-mail can request their ballot.

A timeline of Germany's 2017 elections

September 18 - Prepping the polls

Less than a week to go and preparations are kicking into high gear. Ballots, polling booths and transport boxes start rolling in and election workers are trained. Local authorities must inform voters where they should go to vote. Residents can still register until 36 hours before the election.

A timeline of Germany's 2017 elections

September 24 - Election day

The big day has finally arrived. Schools, gym halls and community centers are transformed as people arrive to cast their ballots. Polling stations open at 8:00 a.m. sharp and at 6:00 p.m. they close again. The votes are tallied and the Federal Returning Officer announces the preliminary results that same night.

A timeline of Germany's 2017 elections

September 25 - Winners and Losers

Only after all of the representative and party votes are counted, the final result is announced. If a candidate did not win his or her constituency, they could still get a seat in the Bundestag if they made the party's regional list.

A timeline of Germany's 2017 elections

October 24 - The 19th Bundestag convenes

The newly elected parliament must meet for the first time no later than one month after the election. Afterwards comes the tricky work of coalition negotiations, followed by a secret ballot to elect the next chancellor.

A timeline of Germany's 2017 elections

November 24 - Everything fair-and-square?

If anyone wants to challenge the validity of the election, they have two months to do so. All voters, the state election overseers, the president of the Bundestag and the Federal Election Commissioner (above) are entitled to appeal the result.

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