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LeagueTLC Innovation Express
Exploring Issues, Innovations, and New Developments with Information Technology Professionals

Capturing the eVote: Online Student Government Elections

Santa Fe 
Community College, FL

With federal election turnouts averaging only 35 percent of the voting population, it's no surprise that campus elections across the country are marred by even lower voter turnouts. Historically, elections for student government officers at America's Universities attract small numbers, and at community colleges, the turnout is still lower. A voter turnout of 5 percent for student elections at community colleges is considered successful at many institutions.

The student government (SG) at Santa Fe Community College (SFCC) in Gainesville, Florida existed for many years as a small organization that traditionally elected its leadership from within. In the spring of 2000, in an attempt to include a more representative student voice and build a more active student government, campuswide elections were initiated for the SG executive board and at-large senators. Using a paper ballot system and one polling station on the SFCC Northwest Campus, 420 students voted in the election. With a campus population of approximately 12,000, the 420 voting students represented 3.5 percent participation. The voter turnout and implied apathy of student issues struck a disconcerting note with existing student leadership, student association members, and college administrators. Recognizing the need and desire to include more attention, diversity, and interest from the student population, the SG and SFCC administration initiated targeted efforts to promote and increase student participation in election processes. 

Project Goals 
Student representatives at SFCC initiated primary development steps by evaluating traditional student voting processes. In a survey of students who did not vote, the three most common reasons cited were 
  1. Lack of interest,
  2. Lack of knowledge about the candidates, and 
  3. Inconvenience of polling and voting locations. 

From this survey, SG officials theorized that a potential key to increasing participation in student voting was to identify unique features and benefits of the voting process to attract students' interest. By capturing students' interest, SG officials believed students would choose to learn more about the candidates, and thus find a way to vote. 

Project Development
The 2000 United States presidential election exposed a series of flaws in the electoral process. The national focus on Florida also fueled interest and energy toward reviewing and revamping traditional election processes. This movement led the SG Elections Commission and SFCC administrators to investigate Internet-based or online voting.

As with many technological developments, and at first glance, Internet-based elections appeared to hold many advantages over traditional paper ballot processes:

  • Information about individual candidates and parties can be linked to Web-based election pages, allowing uninformed students a chance to read about each candidate before voting.

  • Access to students increases, as they can vote regardless of daily class schedules-or anytime during the election timeframe.

  • Access to students increases, as they can vote at home, school, or anyplace.

  • With basic database developments, ballots can be tabulated instantaneously.

  • Manual error in ballot counting is eliminated.

Additionally, the idea of sponsoring Internet or online elections was perceived as innovative and exciting for student services and outreach. The SG Elections Commission hoped that the process alone would generate students' attention and encourage them to get involved with electing their representatives. 

Despite the advantages and hope for an improved process, the fear of the unknown loomed large over the planning group. During the course of development, the SG Elections Commission sponsored a series of brainstorming sessions, and collected a list of concerns and challenges from SFCC students and administrators to be addressed for online elections to succeed. Their efforts brought forward a number of serious concerns:

  • Maintaining the integrity of the election with secure database systems

  • Ensuring that only registered SFCC students were able to vote

  • Ensuring that registered SFCC students voted only one time

  • Creating voting ballots that were clear and understandable

  • Creating voting ballots that worked on multiple PC platforms

  • Ensuring that the database tabulated online votes accurately

  • Ensuring that the Digital Divide would not prevent some students from voting

Many of the challenges were recognized as technical obstacles, to be addressed and solved in website programming and on the server-side development of the project. SG officials felt if the technical challenges could be solved, this new system could offset two of the three most cited reasons for low voter return in the Spring 2000 election-lack of knowledge about candidates and inconvenience of polling locations. The SG officials took it upon themselves to research and review multiple avenues to solve the nontechnical aspects of low voter return, or lack of interest.

At the same time that Internet voting was being considered by the SG Elections Commission, Santa Fe's Information Technology Services (ITS) department was launching eSantaFe, the College's new online registration system. With a unique ID and password, students were now able to log in to a secure server site and register for classes, access grades, view transcripts, and complete a graduation audit, all through online processes. As SFCC administrators and SFCC ITS were looking for distinctive promotional ways to introduce eSantaFe to students, they recognized Internet-based elections or online voting as a prime opportunity. The right call was made to the right administrator at the right time, and ITS and SG began discussions on the integration of the two data systems. 

The eVote 
The shared vision of SG and ITS was a one-stop solution for students through eSantaFe conducting daily information updates and voting online within the same login functions-or eVote. On student election days, banner ads for SG Elections appear on the eSantaFe homepage, and the opportunity to eVote appears in the Options menu or navigation screens. By clicking the banner ad or the eVote option, students navigate directly to the ballot. The online ballot has simple instructions, and students can scroll through the ballot and click on the desired button to cast their official eVote. The format and appearance of voting instructions, ballots, and eVote functions are similar to the eSantaFe page layouts offering a standard look and feel. 

During development phases, the ballot language and instructions were reviewed by a variety of students and staff to ensure clarity and eliminate misunderstanding. The ideal voting process would allow students, after completing their ballots, to click a "Submit Vote" button to confirm the process, and a "Thanks for Voting" message would appear, letting them know when and where election results will be announced. 

As the ITS programmers moved forward setting up eVote services, they recognized that many initial project challenges could be met using eSantaFe system functions. With students already registering for classes with eSantaFe, part of the trust factor for SFCC online services was inherently established. Students using eSantaFe trusted the system with their grades and courses, alleviating much skepticism of online security for casting their votes. SB representatives and ITS staff believe that if the system had been built just for elections and eVote functions, they might have had to start from scratch on perspectives of security and more challenging implementation phases.

Additional synergies were also realized by implementing eVote on the eSantaFe platform. The eSantaFe system is linked to the campus mainframe; thus, when students log in, the system verifies student status and ensures that only current fee-paying students have access to eVote ballots. In addition, after a student clicks the "Submit Vote" button, eSantaFe enters the student's Social Security number (SSN) into a database of voters for that term. If the same student attempts to log in to eVote again during the election period, the database recognizes the SSN and does not allow second-time access to a ballot. These eVote security features ensure reliability and act as gatekeeper to the ballot box.

During the course of eSantaFe development, ITS programmers tested system functions and compatibility on a variety of Internet browsers and different types of computers. Due to the concurrent development cycles, the eVote component was developed and evaluated with the same rigor and beta-testing prior to elections. The platform independent goals of eSantaFe and eVote included allowing students online access and voting capabilities regardless of computer model or Internet service provider. One student reported accessing eVote and voting through the online functions of his cellular phone! 

Testing phases to ensure reliability prior to actual elections were a critical concern for developers, SG representatives, and Santa Fe administrators. Beta-testing phases were developed and eVote online results were dumped into sample database files. These database files were then manually tallied and compared to online numbers to verify an accurate manual count against the automatic tally. In all cases, the automatic tally yielded the correct totals and percentages. At the conclusion of the election, the complete database was available for confirmation of the online vote. These concurrent database files were an important function of the initial eVote process and offered a documented backup to the potential of candidates challenging the online results. The database files could be easily accessed and the votes manually counted.

Another serious concern among SG representatives and Santa Fe administrators was the Digital Divide issue. Access became a strategic focus of eVote implementation phases, and designated polling locations with eVote capabilities were established across campus locations, at popular student sites, and outside libraries. Four Internet-capable computers were set up to support the eVote for 18 hours over the two days of elections. Elections staff were on site to train students in the use of eSantaFe and eVote. A help desk was established to assist students with their personal identification numbers (PIN), and log in functions of eSantaFe and eVote. 

eVote Results
In the two years Santa Fe Community College has sponsored the eVote, election participation has more than tripled. During Year One of the eVote, 812 votes were cast, out of a population of 13,000, representing 6.2 percent student participation. In Year Two, eVote outcomes rose even higher, and in spring 2002 elections, of the 13,500-student population, 1,700 or 12.6 percent cast votes. While Internet voting may not be the only reason for increased participation and interest, most believe it has certainly helped SFCC students.

The linkage to eSantaFe provides the capability of additional data that can be used to see how individuals participate in the eVote. Since the Social Security numbers of all those voting are captured by eSantaFe, voter demographics can be tracked and analyzed. For instance, SG Elections Commission can now determine the percentage of women voters versus men, voters' ages, and ethnicities. Reports can also be generated to analyze voters by particular categories (gender, ethnicity, age, academic program) and review their selections. Through this capturing of data, SG officials and SFCC administrators have been careful not to undermine the integrity of student election processes, and ITS staff and the SG adviser maintain control and access to elections data, and have signed confidentiality agreements as part of employment. 

Using eVote functionalities, SG representatives also realize they are now able to collect more detailed and precise information on registered voters than professional exit-poll information could provide. On a national scale, social scientists might be interested in using the data as part of a broader study of student voting patterns and longitudinal election turnouts. This noted, the SG Elections Commission believe even more useful data is the ability to now identify those groups of students who did not participate in the eVote, and more specifically target this group during publicity campaigns for future elections.

Lessons Learned
After two years of the eVote, a number of other possibilities surfaced that enhanced SFCC Student Elections. During the election time frame, voting tabulation and updates are available in real time, and with secure access by the SG adviser. While this information is not distributed to students, it has proved helpful in knowing how close the election is to having a clear majority. (In this last spring's elections, with three candidates running, SG officials knew well in advance that there would be a run-off, so they could start making plans as early as possible). Using eVote, SG Officials have the capability of now offering the option of releasing the vote count at the end of the first day's voting, but have declined to do so thus far.

The results of SFCC eVote and the success of online voting on a national scale are newly emerging. The benefits of online elections include those that occur prior to casting ballots. The idea of online campaigning is catching on as more and more colleges and universities mandate computer literacy and access measures. Online campaigning allows candidates to reach bigger audiences, eliminates time and space constraints, provides more convenience for voters, and allows for faster input and results. In addition, posting information, issues, and platform positions of candidates is relatively inexpensive and, once established, easy to maintain. 

Successful implementation of online voting, with testing criteria and measures of evaluation, require thoughtful planning and development. The false-positive conclusions of many technocrats surround the notion that if we build it, they will vote. Although limited, the current research in online campaigning and online voting challenges this theory and cautions those intending to rely solely on cyber campaigns. One newly elected representative offered this conclusion: "You can't base your campaign solely on the Internet. It is one part of the election process, but if you only rely on that, nine times out of 10 you'll lose. You still need to go out there and reach people. Campaigning and representing students is still a personal business." 

Research and experimentation offer additional ideas, and mistakes to avoid in the development and implementation of online voting:

  • Avoid creating websites that are too complicated for average usersclarity speaks volumes.

  • Avoid insufficient promotion of voting websitesuse the potential of the Internet to reach the masses.

  • Offer easy access options and quick recall URLs.e.g. http://student.sfcc.edu/evote

  • Accuracy of content and information updates countsavoid typos, errors, and dead links.

  • Commit to quality and substantive contentavoid focusing on candidate profiles and catchy pictures; instead, target college issues and platform policies to generate feedback and substantive student-candidate interaction.

Summary and Future Project Developments
For the two years eVote has existed at Santa Fe Community College, the student voting population has more than tripled. By contrast, the number of students requiring training, assistance, and helpdesk services to use eVote has dropped significantly. Online elections and the eVote have become part of mainstream student activities, much like e-mail. SG officials and ITS staff are scheduled to be part of future elections and outreach services, but the number of students expected to need help is predicted to be low. In the fall of 2002, the SFCC Board passed a rule requiring all full-time, newly enrolled students to have computer and Internet access. With course registration moving entirely online, students will rely on the eSantaFe connection to take classes, engage in services, and update information sources. As these cycles progress through digital stages, the technical functionalities of eVote at SFCC will become more and more transparent, and the character, platform, and policies of candidates will shine through in a new light. 

For more information, contact:
Dan Rodkin
Coordinator
Center for Student Leadership & Activities
Santa Fe Community College

 

 
 

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