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Culture

Sites match voters, candidates

Political information sites offer tools that resemble those on dating sites, where the uncommitted voter can answer questions to a match engine that spits out an ideal candidate.

With online searches for boyfriends and girlfriends now commonplace, Web sites are encroaching on a different kind of matchmaking--between voters and political candidates.

Increasingly, political news and information sites offer tools that resemble those on dating sites, where the uncommitted can answer questions about themselves to an engine that spits out an ideal candidate or a ranked list of potential matches.

One scholar of elections applauded the online political matchmakers, citing the difficulty voters can have determining shifting stands on many issues from multiple candidates through media coverage that tends to focus more on daily campaign events than policy stands.

"What's great about these sites is they've made the effort to characterize where the candidate stands, and they've made the matching process easy," said Jon Krosnick, a visiting professor of communications at Stanford University and board member of the National Election Studies. "I think it's a terrific idea."

Sites that offer candidate match engines for the coming U.S. presidential election range from lesser-known voter education projects, such as SelectSmart.com and OnTheIssues.org, to America Online's President Match.

"In 2000, this proved to be our most popular one-off feature of the election guide," said Kathleen Hayden, a senior programming manager for AOL News. Since the 2004 version launched earlier this month, "we have seen the same indications that this is proving to be one of its most popular features."

The political matchmakers enjoy significant word-of-mouth exposure on discussion boards, blogs and e-mail lists. But they also receive criticism from some voters.

"I can't put too much stock in any quiz of this format," Dan Hall, a Ph.D. student in linguistics at the University of Toronto, wrote in response to a blog about President Match. "I think the multiple choice approach to issues is limited and (more dangerously) limiting. I don't just want a candidate who opposes the invasion of Iraq and the (USA) Patriot Act; I want one who also proposes creative, substantive, effective alternatives."

AOL's Hayden acknowledged that the matchmaking engines are reductive, but called them useful in the context of the election site's other offerings.

"I'd have that concern if it were the only feature we were offering," Hayden said. "But we have the luxury of having an entire election guide."

Other sites offer political matchmaking engines to introduce people to alternative political parties or political ideologies.