Despite the nonstop coverage of the ongoing Republican primary battle on cable news and talk radio programs, the American voter remains notoriously ill-informed.

While people may be increasing their attention to the high-profile horse race of presidential politics this year, it’s clear that most voters’ knowledge of local politics has sharply declined. This is doubtless related to the dwindling amount of local news consumption among most Americans. A Pew Research Center report, which I recently cited, found that, for the first time ever, people are regularly getting their campaign news more from national cable news programs than from local television stations, and more from the Internet than from their local newspapers.

Fortunately, at least two websites have emerged in this election cycle that hope to narrow the information gap and help voters decide on a candidate by surveying them on a host of questions and then matching them with the candidate whose policy positions accord most closely with their own.

Closing the Political Information Gap

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iSideWith offers a way for voters to connect with candidates based on issue-based questionnaires.

If you’re like me, you’ve often walked into a polling booth on Election Day ready to pull the lever or push the button for the person running for president (or governor or senator), and then been confronted with dozens of names of candidates you never heard of for positions you didn’t know existed (“Tree Warden”? really?). What most of us do, in that case, is simply vote for whichever name shares our party affiliation and cross our fingers that they’re the right guy or gal for the job.

Historian Rick Shenkman recently chronicled some examples of voter ignorance in his provocatively titled book “Just How Stupid Are We?“ (like the fact that most Americans can’t name their own member of Congress). And economist Bryan Caplan argued in “The Myth of the Rational Voter“ that most of us vote under the influence of faulty beliefs.

ElectNext and iSideWith.com have set out to correct that.

ElectNext, started by Keya Dannenbaum and Paul Jungwirth, describes its mission this way: “Imagine if you could cast an informed vote in every one of your elections, all the way down your ballot. Rather than relying on party or guesswork, you could choose candidates based on knowledge.” Taylor Peck, who started iSideWith.com with his good friend Nick Boutelier, expresses frustration with the media’s tendency to focus on the “fight of the day between the top two candidates,” which eclipses substantive reporting on policy positions and leaves an “information gap between voters and candidates.”

Closing that gap is exactly what both ElectNext and iSideWith seek to do. iSideWith is piloting its site with the presidential election, but it plans to expand its scope with key congressional and mayoral races in the coming weeks. ElectNext is currently live with elections for president and both houses of Congress, and remains ambitiously committed to its overarching goal of “creating a world in which every voter in every election is using ElectNext to easily vote his or her values all the way down the ballot.”

Political Matchmaking Demystified

When discussing how ElectNext matches voters with candidates, Dannenbaum pulled back the curtain for me. First, there’s a matching algorithm that calculates one’s closeness to a candidate based on the similarity of answers and the rank of importance that a person ascribes to each question (much like the way dating websites function). Then, there’s a dynamic survey algorithm that generates new questions based on your answers. This is how many computer-based standardized tests work. Finally, it has a “candidate profiling algorithm” using a political interest alliance graph that pulls data from the Federal Election Commission, special interest group ratings, and correlations among survey responses in its own database.

While ElectNext uses sophisticated algorithms from diverse datasets (indeed, it’s in the process of hiring a “chief data scientist”) that may help it bring its site to scale, iSideWith takes a simpler and more straightforward approach. Peck and Boutelier conduct the editorial research on their own, evaluate the candidates’ positions by the “official statements” that they or their campaign make, and personally comb through every debate transcript.

Putting Policy Alignment Before Party Affiliation

The guys at iSideWith also take pains to include little-known candidates from obscure political parties. (Don’t be surprised if the presidential candidate with whom you most closely align is Jimmy McMillan of the “Rent Is Too Damn High” party.) Peck complains that “the media has shut out third-party candidates in this election cycle. In South Carolina, Buddy Roemer was tied with Rick Perry in several polls but was never invited to the debates.” They hope that their users who get matched with lesser-known candidates might take a moment and research them.

And why not? After all, one of the key reasons people rely so strongly on political parties is because they’re helpful proxies for inferring where an otherwise unknown candidate stands. But sites like ElectNext and iSidewith promise to enable voters to learn where each (and every) candidate stands … and which stand with them. These sites may not eliminate the power or usefulness of political parties completely, but they do hope to replace it with a more precise and informative shortcut for voter decision-making. As ElectNext’s Dannenbaum told me, “Why pull a party lever on election day when you can just as easily pull a customized issues lever? That is what we’re building for you.”

Asked whether these algorithms might, in an effort to restore rationality to our voting, discount important character traits that aren’t easily quantified, Dannenbaum said, “We couldn’t agree more that there is more to choosing a candidate than pure issue alignment. It is absolutely the case that qualities like leadership, experience, charisma, and other social/intangibles enter into the calculation. In our ultimate vision of ElectNext, those intangibles will also be part of our matching.” At that point, Americans will have to be able to look at a survey in front of them and answer honestly, as they do on OkCupid and Match.com: “What’s your type?”

Mark Hannah is the political correspondent for MediaShift. Mark’s political career began on the Kerry-Edwards presidential campaign, where he worked as a member of the national advance staff. He’s more recently done advance work for the Obama-Biden campaign, the Presidential Inaugural Committee and the White House. In the “off-season” (i.e., in between campaigns) he worked in the PR agency world and conducted sensitive public affairs campaigns for well-known multinational corporations, major industry organizations and influential non-profits. He serves on the board of directors of the National Association for Media Literacy Education, is a member of the Public Relations Society of America and was a research fellow at the Society for New Communications Research. He is a graduate of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and received a master’s degree from Columbia University. His personal website is www.mark-hannah.com, and he can be reached at markphannah[at]gmail.com. Follow Mark on Twitter: @MarksTerritory

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