Election day in Germany: Check your device for advice


German voter Marcus Schroeter hoped to clear up a few issues as he answered political policy questions in the computer application Wahl-O-Mat, or Vote-O-Meter, ahead of Sunday’s national election.

Schroeter figured his answers to the 38 questions might provide some needed guidance as he prepared for the quadrennial vote, which will determine the successor to retiring Chancellor Angela Merkel. But, it could be.

“I think it’s good for helping to form political opinions and a useful tool to combat political disenchantment with some voters, but, to be honest, I’m still undecided,” Schroeter, 37, a veterinarian in Berlin, said this week.

Despite an anticipated mix of user experiences, about 20 million German voters were expected to turn to their phones or other online devices for app advice, so to speak, not unlike asking Alexa or Siri about the weather, music recommendations or travel tips.

That’s about one-third of the 60.4 million eligible voters in Germany and nearly half of the total number of 46.9 million people who voted in the last national election in 2017. This is also 5 million more than the number of people who voted in the last national election in 2017.

Germany, with a population of about 84 million, will elect a total of at least 598 members of the Bundestag, or Parliament, on Sunday. Those representatives will elect a new chancellor, depending on coalition negotiations, about a month later.

There are 40 parties on the ballot in Sunday’s election, ranging from the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party, or NPD, to the far-left Marxist-Leninist Party, or MLPD. Six parties are expected win at least 5 percent of the total vote in order to secure seats within the Parliament. All the parties are competing to be the party that wins the most votes and leads the next government.

The major parties have made significant changes in their positions over the past decade, making it difficult to vote. Merkel moved her conservative party ,, the Christian Democratic Union away from the right to the political center. The Greens, once on the far left, have swung towards the conservative side on certain issues in recent years. Olaf Schholz , who is running for the position of chancellor in the SPD, has moved his left-leaning party into the center.

Opinion polls show Scholz leading the field with about 25% of the vote and the odds-on favorite to emerge as the next chancellor in a three-party coalition with the Greens and probably the Free Democrats.

Germany’s popularity with the advice app is a sign of a low-key political culture, according to analysts. The country also developed a historic aversion to loud, charismatic orators in part because of the horrific experiences that followed the turmoil of the early 1930s and the rise of Adolf Hitler.

The Wahl-O-Mat in Germany was launched in 2002 after a similar application, Stemwijzer, or Voting Guide, was used in neighboring Netherlands starting in 1989. There are many other countries that use voting advice applications, some with different names.

The nonpartisan Wahl-O-Mat runs on a shoestring annual budget of 100,000 euros, or $120,000, with just three staff members under the aegis of the federal agency for civic education (BPB), Pamela Brandt, project manager since 2004, said in an interview. Nearly 16 million people had used the device by Sept. 17, breaking the total 2017 record of 15.7 million, and the 2021 total would probably hit 20 million this week, she said.

Most people who use the Wahl-O-Mat have already been motivated by politics and are looking for confirmation or more information. “About 95% of the time the device confirms their leanings. The remaining 5% are often surprised at the outcome, but they are usually inspired to explore more about the party platforms. That’s especially rewarding for us — informing voters.”

Discussions about the Wahl-O-Mat have moved from the commuter train to the water cooler to just about everywhere as many ordinary Germans debate the merits of the different parties and compare notes on why their recommended choices sometimes do not match their interests.

Many others in Berlin shared their opinions on the app, but they mostly refused to give details about how they would vote.

Frank Ruenzi has known for a while what he would do to cast his vote in the election. However, he said that he only answered the questions on an app on a lark. The app advised him to vote for the far-left Linke party even though he had never voted that way, said the 41-year-old self-described political junkie.

“I think it’s maybe useful for people who don’t follow politics closely.” Ruenzi, a hobbyist and office worker in medical industry, said that he thought it was too one-dimensional and too imprecise. “I think it’s maybe useful for people who don’t follow politics closely.”

The recommendation from Wahl-O-Mat surprised Andrej Hermlin, 56, after he’d answered questions such as “Do you favor the introduction of a speed limit on freeways?” or “Should lawmakers limit rent increases?” or “Should Germany introduce a tax on wealth?”

“It’s just a gimmick,” said Hermlin, a musician. “The party that I will vote for came in ninth.” The machine isn’t working. I don’t think many people are really depending on this machine to decide how to vote.”

Sylvia Fuhr, a 52-year-old nurse, said she stuck with her original plans for the election, which did not match the app’s recommendation.

“It’s quite insane that people are asking computers how to vote, instead of trying to figure it out for themselves,” Fuhr stated.

Many people like Yvonne Wagner (a secretary) acknowledged that it is not unusual to turn to an application for any kind of advice or serious information, even if the request is not related to politics.

“I already ask my smartphone about train connections, restaurant tips and it’s even helped out when it comes to dating,” said Wagner, 53, “so what’s wrong with asking for voting tips too?”

Kirschbaum is a special correspondent.

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