A Look At Online Voting

This is obviously one of our less sexier titled articles, but Pádraig McCarrick looks at the viability of online voting if it was to be introduced in future Students’ Union elections after VP CSUD candidate Eoin Griffin included it in his manifesto.

When people think of online voting, the images of the disastrous ‘electronic voting’ trials often come to mind. This should not be the case. While Bertie Ahern may have bemoaned the use of “stupid old pencils” during elections in his defence of the electronic system, the benefits online voting would bring to students would be far more than just moving with the times. This article will look at some of the concerns regarding cost, safety and implementation if it were to be introduced by MSU.

 Has it been done before?

Yes it has. Online voting has been adopted by many universities in Britain. Queens University Belfast has been running with online voting for the last five years. In that period, it has seen an increase in student participation from about 1,800 to 4,500 in elections ranging from council elections (similar to our class rep system) in the first semester to the bigger S.U elections in the second. All see a similar turnout in participation. University of Limerick are also piloting the scheme in the hope of increasing participation and are hoping to increase it over time.

What’s the cost?

Cost is an important factor when looking at introducing a new scheme such as this, when services for students are being cut constantly. Several companies in the UK provide these services to universities, including UL. The National Union of Students UK are able to recommend who are dependable and able to undertake the work. One of these companies, MSL have quoted that basic installation would cost £1,500 plus £75 monthly maintenance. While the initial set up seems quite costly, its value in increasing student participation in elections and referenda shows its a worthwhile investment.

How will it increase participation?

In Maynooth, there has always been a problem with reaching quorum for votes that take place outside of the annual SU elections. Last year, the new SU constitution failed to pass due to lack of students’ participation. It then had to be run again in conjunction with the elections. Online voting, with it’s proven increase in participation would make running referendums far easier and would allow the Students’ Union to hold them at any time of the academic year. Further still, it would allow students to properly discuss issues that needed to be voted on. A recent last minute town hall meeting on what students wanted their union position on fees to be was extremely rushed in order to have it in line with this weeks elections, bye stepping important discussion time by Union Council.

In October, The SU’s class rep training trip was scrutinised for the SU’s decision to hold the training off campus at a cost that has only now been disclosed as €263.03 more expensive than if it was held on campus. The defence given at the time was that the trip would increase student participation in it’s S.U. While many current class reps, especially those who are running for current Exec positions have applauded this valuable training, the cost, circa €4,500 can be seen to have failed in relation to widening student participation in their union. While I’m in no way discrediting having a properly trained class rep system, the importance of having as many students as possible voting, increasing the democratic pool is just as important to have implemented.

How will it work? 

QUB student councillor Róisín Jackman spoke to us at length on the benefits of this system.

“The benefits for students are obvious. Students who might not have had access to traditional polling stations at the specific election times (like students outside of Belfast, disabled students, part-time students, students with other responsibilities like kids etc.) now have the ability to play their part, it’s quicker and takes a lot less effort so more people are inclined to use it, it’s easier and it takes away the strictly-political-style polling booths that might have put students off before, you don’t have to register to vote you just automatically get registered at the start of the year and vote on your own account so there’s none of the mess, it’s location-less which students seem to like”

The system would be log in based, similar to services like Moodle or Blackboard. Students would use their student number and password in a similar manner. We contacted the Computer Centre on the viability of the issue but the only response we got was that they had no plans to introduce online voting at this time. This is due to the fact that the issue has not been brought up or mandated by students to do so.

Surely such a system can be abused or cheated?

 Ms. Jackman talked about what she saw as drawbacks to online voting and how the system can be abused.

“Candidates and their supporters used to go round campus with laptops and just pester people anywhere and everywhere to log in and vote for them, likewise people used to ask all of their friends for their (and others’) student numbers and passwords to log in and vote for themselves on different accounts. There’s a lot of harrasment in the computer areas on campus”.

She recommended that people should be aware of this and to make sure that strict policies are put in place to deter from this and minimise it happening. Technical bugs are also a concern but we have been told that the systems are independently tested and companies such as Deloitte provide this service.

What has the MSU Constitution have to say about it?

Why did you bring up that darn constitution? After reading through it, Article 14.6 states that all exec positions must be filled by Proportional Representation by a Single Transferable Vote. This would allow electronic voting to take place as STV is the system provided by companies setting up the service. In relation to Student Council elections, candidates are elected by a show of hands and therefore it would require a referendum to change this to allow online voting to select class reps. Changes to the constitution would also be required to introduce new election protocol however with the many concerns people have with the current constitution, a review should hopefully be undertaken in the next academic year and what ever changes that are required will be looked at in order to provide the most democratic environment for MSU students.

-Pádraig McCarrick

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