The Trust at the World Forum for Democracy - Part 2
Earlier this month the Trust organised a delegation to go to the World Forum for Democracy in Strasbourg. Joining us was NICVA's Andrea Thornbury. Here's what she made of it all...
In November 2016 I attended the World Forum for Democracy (WFD) in the Council for Europe situated in Strasburg, along with six others who work on Civic Activism Programmes supported by the Building Change Trust.
As a member of the Northern Ireland Open Government Network the theme of improving democracy and equality through education greatly interested me and the conference did not disappoint.
The very location was democracy in action and was the perfect site to hold the conference. Within no time the 600 seats in the hemicycle were filled to capacity with people from a range of different countries with very different experiences of democracy.
For this blog I am going to focus on the second day of the conference. It focused on the A, B, Citizenship, Democracy and Education and the lab that interested me the most was ‘reloading elections’ which explored educational initiatives to ensure more informed voter choices and their implications for voting systems.
The presenters, Ausrine Dirzinskaite from the Learn Before You Vote initiative in Lithuania and Marius Amrhein and Antonia Diemer who both presented on how turning a political education instrument (Voting Advice Application) into a new election method in Germany were very engaging and brought the issues of young people being involved, engagement and informed in the election process to life.
Recent studies by the OECD indicate that most young people are disengaged with elections and are not interested in politicians. Dirzinskaite reported that this was the case in Lithuania which led to the development of the Learn Before You Vote project.
The project’s aim is to foster conscious voting, to involve young people in the election process and to design a watchdog to monitor politicians and their electoral promises. Over 2,000 volunteers aged between 15 and 25 have been recruited and trained with an emphasis on a ‘doing by learning’ approach.
The volunteers organised open debates with candidates and followed up with post-election meetings which gave them direct access to politicians. An online platform was also developed where citizens asked questions of candidates with 5,000 questions asked in 2016.
The impact of the project has been pronounced. There was an increase in the knowledge, perception, self-esteem and political literacy of the young people involved in the project and they became pioneers in their communities.
There was also an impressive increase in the number of young people who voted in the 2016 elections. In 2012 16% of young people cast their vote and this increased to 38.1% in 2016.
A clear impact was also the shift in the attitude of politicians to young people with politicians investing more time in engaging with them and trying to win their votes.
Dirzinskaite emphasised that the project has not been without challenges. There was scepticism from politicians and only two thirds of candidates engaged in the debates.
Interestingly, the Minister for Education was the politician who engaged the least. Also much effort was invested in ensuring that volunteers had a non-partisanship approach with each volunteer having to sign a code of practice to ensure neutral status.
This was very important especially considering the role of social media during elections. A final challenge was the sustainability of the project, especially keeping young people and politicians motivated.
However, Dirzinskaite emphasised that currently this is not a major issue as future plans have been made to ensure volunteers monitor the election promises made by candidates and will hold informal meetings reminding them of their promises. The online platform for all citizens will also be maintained.
In the second session Marius Amrhein and Antonia Diemer outlined their experience of turning a political education instrument (Voting Advice Application) into a new election method in Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Germany.
They quickly outlined the purpose of a voting advice application which is a web or hard copy application that helps voters find a candidate or a party that stands closest to their preferences. This promotes the shift away from ‘whom to vote for’ to ‘what to vote for’.
In essence voters answer questions on policy issues and the parties who had answered the questions before the election are given the parliament seats proportionally to the degree of matching of their policy profiles with that of the electorate.
Amrhein and Diemer met with the student’s association to discuss running a pilot at the student parliament elections in July 2016 and quickly gained their support.
The turnout at the elections was 16% which is usual for student parliaments in Germany. The results showed that there was a difference in voting behaviour when matching the actual election results to the Voting Advice Application results.
The students elected in the student parliament election would not have been elected if the voting advice application method was used.
However, both Amrhein and Diemer outlined the challenges of the pilot. One challenge is that questions can discriminate against the parties and that it is also necessity to take into account the importance of issues (weighting). Both plan to rerun this pilot and monitor year on year results.
In summary I found the lab to be very engaging and informative. The information that was provided could be very useful to the Northern Ireland Open Government Network with regard to its role in the Elections NI project.
In addition, the learning could be used by the Open Government Network to engage with schools and students undertaking relevant higher level education to be involved in future elections in Northern Ireland and the monitoring of government promises.
Once again I would like to thank the Building Change Trust. This experience would not have been possible without the sponsorship it provided. I hope to have the opportunity to attend this very worthwhile conference again in the future.