New Zealand has its own online voting tools. But somehow nobody loves them as much as Germans love their Wahl-O-Meter.
The outcome of this yawn-inducing non-contest, in which even the campaign posters all look alike, has long been known: Chancellor Angela Merkel will win a fourth term. The boredom may well be one reason for the unusual level of enjoyment Germans take from something known as the Wahl-O-Mat.
Germany’s Federal Agency for Civic Education, which has the job of teaching the country’s citizens how their democracy works, has been deploying the Wahl-O-Mat – or vote-o-meter – since 2002. Political scientists compile 38 questions on everything from animal rights and healthcare to fake news and foreign policy, then 32 German political parties answer them. Prospective voters go online and answer the questions too; after about three minutes, they are told which party they might like to vote for. It’s a bit like online dating, except you end up being matched with a politician (or two) rather than your one true love.
Plenty of other countries, New Zealand included, also have these online tools, broadly known as voting-advice applications. But somehow nobody loves them as much as the Germans love their Wahl-O-Mat.
For example, when the tool came online this year, servers hosting it broke down almost immediately because so many people wanted access. A mere week after its launch, more than 7.5 million had already sought their political match and the riveting topic of “Bundestagswahl” – parliamentary election – was finally trending on Google.
A total of 50 million voters have used the Wahl-O-Mat in the past, and a recent YouGov survey found that about a third of German voters, roughly 20 million people, plan to consult it this year.
In a country where politics is always taken seriously – asked whether he would bother voting, one Berlin hipster said that, yes, of course, he would because of Trump, Brexit and, duh, Hitler – perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that seeking voting advice is the Germans’ idea of fun.
Pundits have described the Wahl-O-Mat as one of Germany’s favourite “sports” and people enjoy trying to game the system. Co-workers boast how they made it give them the wrong party and they’re as giddy about that as if they had posed as bi-curious on Tinder. The local media usually challenge senior politicians to take the test publicly, to see if they end up matching with their own party. (Surprise! They don’t always.)
And the Wahl-O-Mat-related scandal headlining dinner-party arguments and newspapers this election season? Question 18. This asked whether the murder of the European Jews should still be a central part of what locals call the culture of remembrance. Outraged Germans asked whether this was a roundabout way of questioning the Holocaust, as sanctioned by a government agency, and some angrily turned to other vote-advice applications as a result.
As much fun as it may sound, the Wahl-O-Mat isn’t just here for a good time. It actually does what it’s supposed to. Up to 9% of those who didn’t plan to vote were motivated to do so after using it, and more than 15% who used it said they were not normally even interested in politics. After using it, about 90% of Wahl-O-Mat fans also said it had confirmed they were already with their perfect political match.
If only all dating apps were that useful to democracy.
Cathrin Schaer is editor-in-chief of Iraqi news website Niqash.org, based in Berlin.
This article was first published in the September 23, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.