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Algorithms and elections: risks of political matchmaking tools

By Zanele Fengu and Kavisha Pillay

South Africa is a month away from a significant general election, and innovators are developing matchmaking tools to help the electorate with their voting decisions. Platforms like Yoh, Vote, a student-led initiative, and the Mail & Guardian’s Party Policy Quiz use matchmaking algorithms similar to those used in dating apps, matching voters with political parties based on responses to policy questions. With a user-friendly interface and clear line of questioning, these platforms appeal to voters who might otherwise avoid sifting through various manifestos. However, these tools must be developed with transparency and fairness as key principles, as they can also pose risks to democratic processes and informed decision-making.

Behind the screens 

At their core, these matchmaking tools use algorithms to process a user's responses to political questions, producing a 'match' with a political party. However, the algorithms' inner workings remain opaque, leaving potential voters unsure about how or why they were matched with a particular party.

Voters are not provided with a clear explanation for their match, which may make them rely solely on the algorithm's decision without understanding its nuances. From our engagement with these tools, the questions posed are quite binary, forcing voters to choose between extremes, whereas many parties in South Africa are often centrist in their policy proposals. The policy questions also seem to focus on national issues, whereas in a general election - the electorate decides on who will govern at both a national and provincial level. 

Additionally, algorithms can inadvertently perpetuate biases based on their design or training, skewing matches towards certain parties or ideologies. This can mislead voters and distort democratic outcomes. Without open access to the algorithms, researchers and digital experts cannot ascertain if they contain inherent biases that might guide voters toward certain political parties.

Another crucial issue with these matchmaking tools is their potential to reinforce the dominance of mainstream parties. They seem to focus primarily on major parties in South African politics, risking the marginalization of smaller, less-known entities that offer alternative perspectives or policies. Independent candidates, a new feature in our general election, also seem to be excluded.

To address these issues, current and future political matchmaking tools should:

  1. Include disclaimers encouraging users to explore parties and policies beyond what the algorithm suggests, helping voters understand the tool's limitations and see it as a starting point, not a definitive guide.

  2. Provide a clear and accessible explanation of how the algorithm works, including the factors it considers and how they contribute to the final match, helping users understand why they've been matched with a particular party.

  3. Disclose how each question in the matchmaking tool is weighted in the algorithm's decision-making process, offering insights into the importance of different responses and their influence on the match.

Political matchmaking tools have the potential to revolutionise voter engagement,

particularly among younger generations who may feel disconnected from traditional political processes. Both 'Yoh, Vote' and the M&G Party Policy Quiz should be applauded for their innovation and willingness to help South Africans sift through the noise of politics. Their intention is to bring clarity to the electorate.

However, for these tools to be meaningful and effective, they must be developed with transparency, inclusivity, and collaboration in mind. By working with electoral experts, these tools can reflect the diversity of political parties and ideologies, reducing the risk of reinforcing mainstream dominance. Digital ethicists can provide valuable insights to ensure transparency and fairness in these algorithms, fostering trust in the tools and promoting informed voting.

While we encourage innovation, political matchmaking tools should never automate voters' decisions or replace the necessary work of making an informed choice at the ballot box.

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1 Comment

Excellent campaign on digital ethic. A good initiative to keep up the integrity and transparency. I am from Malaysia a certified Integrity Officer and Governance and Integrity Practitioner. TQ.

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