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Review Board should have learned about technology before ruling

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The most extensive democratic exercise at the University of Calgary is now in doubt as the Students' Union Review Board overturned the wishes of over 6,500 students last week on the grounds that an undetermined, but not unknowable, number of students' votes were uncounted.

However, the ruling upset not only the victories of the winning candidates, but also students' confidence in the relatively new electronic voting system. Students participating in a democratic process, some for the first time, are unlikely to return to it if they believe their efforts ineffectual.

So it is highly unfortunate that the discontent of so few students could mean rerunning an election in the summer or fall, after many current students have graduated. Doing so deprives more students of their right to vote than could have been conceivably denied in this election, and also denies some candidates the opportunity to once again seek office. The rights of this 20 per cent or so of students would be abrogated in favor of a vocal and unelected few, who do not necessarily represent the interests of all students, to know how closely they lost the election.

Though knowledge is preferable to ignorance, in this case knowing the margin of error comes at the cost of all students becoming ignorant of the composition of the future SU executive and the futures of those individuals in it-a difficult bargain.

Despite these negatives, the ruling has utility.

First, it admits that our democratic system, which predates that of many developing nations, is still not perfect, and that no election can be perfect. Second, Director Marc Wrubleski of Sorex Software, which created the online voting software, agrees that voters should be prevented from leaving virtual ballots at the voting booth for others to use, and has proposed improvements to that effect. Third, the attention generated by the challenge to the results provides an opportunity for the online voting system to be proven, and sustained.

However, the panel's stated reasoning for overturning the election departs entirely from these positives. Three glaring flaws in their ruling illustrate that they know little about the fundamental technology used in electronic voting.

First, their belief that "[a] vote was not registered until the 'vote accepted' screen was displayed" is comparable to a young child's belief that objects cease to exist if they disappear from immediate view. Clearly, the computer server tasked with collecting ballots does not cease to operate when Internet Explorer crashes or ignores the server for a particular voter, much as Hotmail does not stop processing e-mail if a user's web browser crashes.

Second, their belief that "return[ing] the screen to home or the Students' Union home page prior to 'vote accepted' page being seen, the vote would be destroyed" confuses ballots with actual votes, and contradicts repeated statements (solicited by members of the review board) from the voting system's creator about ways in which ballots could be destroyed. Mr. Wrubleski repeatedly stated jumping to any page in the voting process, prior to the ballot being collected or a new ballot being created, would not change the state of that page or the ballot.

Third, in considering the possibility of multiple voting, the board accepts that Mr. Wrubleski "was unable to prove or disprove the actual incidents of any occurrence of this type," admitting that any estimate of probable irregularities would be baseless. But the board attempts to use Mr. Wrubleski's conjecture-that there was a "smaller than 1 per cent" chance of irregularity-to sustain that "on the balance of probabilities… the result of the election may have been different as a consequence of irregularities." An interesting and needless leap of logic indeed, especially when actual numbers of attempted and successful votes could be determined from logs (that should be) kept by the ballot-keeping computer as an industry-standard practice.

In overturning not only the races determined by a handful of votes but all election and referenda results-including those decided by hundreds or thousands of votes-on misunderstood grounds, the review board clearly values knowing the margin of error more than the gross expressed will of the students.

Click here for the Review Board's ruling.

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Comments

Ben,

I agree with you on all counts, but I think you're overlooking one very fundamental issue. In any technical setting, the merits of a product (in this case, the expensive E-voting software used in the election) are ultimately determined by unqualified, non-technical users.

Much like you, I found the RB's "technical" statements convoluted, a sign to me that they did not understand what they were talking about. Be that as it may, the ultimate critereon for this particular product is the security and efficacy of processing one ballot per registered voter. Since the perception of the board is that this was not met, the software is inherently flawed and the onus falls upon the developer to begin the re-engineering process.

On a technical note, I think he would have been far better off designing a custom client/server application, installing clients on-site at the Polling booths. Although this would create more work and negate the possibility of voting from home (or outside the city/province/country), the ability to restrict user options to appropriate voting-related activities would be invaluable.

Patrick

To restrict voting to polling stations negates the value of any electronic system in the first place. We would not spend half the money for the software and just go back to the paper ballots. The whole point of the online election was the convience of not having to actually be at a polling station on campus and still be able to cast a ballot.