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UTSC students play key role in revolutionary Vote Compass election tool


Vote Compass is taking Canada by storm. The interactive online tool, hosted by the CBC’s Canada Votes 2011 website, is a questionnaire that helps users determine how their views compare to the platforms of the political parties. Just one week after the federal election campaign began, more than one million Canadians had used Vote Compass. And it turns out the department of social science at the University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC) was one of the key sponsors for this revolutionary tool.
Vote Compass asks users to respond to 30 statements on a wide variety of political issues, from the environment and the economy to defense and gay marriage. Users respond to each statement on a sliding scale (i.e., strongly agree, strongly disagree, etc.), and these responses are then used to determine which federal party’s platform is the best fit with the user’s opinions.
Tools like Vote Compass have been a mainstay of the electoral process across Western Europe for about a decade now, but nothing like it has ever been tried here. Users end up with a personalized map that shows where they stand in relation to each political party on each individual issue.
But that’s not all. Cliff van der Linden, the founder and executive director of Vote Compass, says the results are just the beginning.
“So far, what most people are missing about Vote Compass is that it’s not just about that map at the end,” says van der Linden, who is also a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Toronto. “Once the results are calculated, you can then click on any of the party icons and explore a huge database of party positions on each issue, based on their public statements.”
It is this database that gives Vote Compass its real power, enabling van der Linden and his team to code responses for each party on each issue. And it was student volunteers from UTSC who provided much of the raw material for this database.
Vote Compass was sponsored by the department of social sciences at UTSC and the Centre for the Study of Democratic Citizenship at McGill University. According to van der Linden, UTSC’s involvement has been critical. “The social sciences department as well as the dean’s office gave us crucial financial and institutional support.”
Much of the latter took the form of volunteer research assistants, selected from a group of promising upper-year undergraduate political science students. “We recruited specifically from UTSC as a means of creating experiences for students there in political research and policy analysis,” says van der Linden. “And the research assistants did a heck of a lot of work. They deserve a ton of credit.”
Third-year political science student Julia Varshavska was one of these research assistants. For two weeks at the end of February, Varshavska spent hours combing through countless press releases, official party blog posts, platform documents, house minutes, public speeches and media reports to determine where her assigned party – the Green Party of Canada – stood on each of the 30 Vote Compass statements.
“I loved the fact that I had to be unbiased, that it was a statistical endeavour,” says Varshavska. “A lot of people don’t have time to go out and find this information for themselves. This is why Vote Compass is so important.”
Professor Matthew Hoffmann, chair of the department of social sciences at UTSC, says the project has had a real impact at UTSC. “Vote Compass is a wonderful tool that enhances some key educational goals we have in the department of social sciences,” he says. “It has provided students with outstanding experiential learning opportunities, a way for students to put their education into practice.  And it is also a way for our students and our department to participate in the larger community, to be engaged in civic life.”
Vote Compass has proven massively popular and it’s possible that many more millions of Canadians will take the questionnaire and learn something about their own political views in the process.
“We’re always told Canadians are apathetic, they’re disinterested, they’re disengaged,” says van der Linden. “And this tool says that’s just not the case.” And while the questionnaire itself is an exciting educational tool that could become a mainstay of the Canadian electoral process, the process that led to its creation has also been an immense learning experience for UTSC students like Varshavska.
“It was a lot of fun,” she says. “It combined what I was learning in class this year, like political strategy and political statistics, with the world at large. This was a way for me to practically manifest the knowledge I had learned in my classes. It was really interesting and really cool that I could be a part of something that was outside the university, something that was so real.”
Check out Vote Compass for yourself, and find out where you and the parties really stand.

© University of Toronto Scarborough