LeagueTLC Innovation Express
Exploring Issues, Innovations,
and New Developments with Information Technology Professionals
the eVote: Online Student Government Elections
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.
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
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.
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
As with many technological developments, and at first glance, Internet-based
elections appeared to hold many advantages over traditional paper
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.
in ballot counting is eliminated.
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
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:
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
ballots that were clear and understandable
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 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.
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.
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
Research and experimentation offer additional ideas, and mistakes
to avoid in the development and implementation of online voting:
websites that are too complicated for average users—clarity
promotion of voting websites—use 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 counts—avoid typos, errors, and
Commit to quality
and substantive content—avoid focusing on candidate profiles
and catchy pictures; instead, target college issues and platform
policies to generate feedback and substantive student-candidate
Summary and Future
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:
Center for Student Leadership & Activities
Santa Fe Community College