Web voting stirs fraud accusations

A graduate student group’s online election has spurred questions on polling methods.

Parker Lemke

The Public Affairs Student Association scrapped results from its online election held earlier this semester following allegations that some students voted multiple times.

The group, which represents Humphrey School of Public Affairs students, administered a second round of balloting this month, and representatives say they’re unsure why the mishap occurred.

The incident, though isolated, mirrors others that have occurred in University of Minnesota student elections, calling into question some campus voting processes.

The Minnesota Student Association’s election resulted in a recount after critics questioned its legitimacy in 2007. Students were allegedly unable to log in online and votes might have been incorrectly registered.

In PASA’s first election, about 110 Humphrey School students casted votes in an online poll that was scheduled to run from Jan. 30 to Feb. 2, said former PASA president George Shardlow.

But board members halted the process when they heard from students that numerous people had been voting more than once.

“There were some people — [a] limited few — who spoke openly and basically bragged about it,” Shardlow said.

At a public forum earlier this month, PASA members noted a number of possible explanations for why some students cast multiple votes, including beliefs that some students misunderstood the election process or accidentally voted twice out of forgetful-ness.

PASA is unable to identify all of the students who could have voted more than once because the online service  anonymously calculates the votes, Shardlow said.

In some past elections, PASA required voters to enter identifying information, prompting concerns about the polls’ anonymity.

“Some individuals had access to who had voted for whom,” he said, “and so, in an effort to make sure we addressed those concerns, we used an anonymous voting format.”

After canceling the flawed election, the group found a service that requires University email addresses for voter participation and keeps the contact information separate from the ballots, Shardlow said.

“[PASA] had the appropriate checks and balances with the second election, and it was valid,” said Joel Mixon, who advises student organizations at the Humphrey School.

Three candidates ran for president this year, Shardlow said, and there was a large applicant pool for officers.

“It felt like there was a lot of interest from a lot of great candidates,” he said.

Although web-based elections have become commonplace since the University first made plans to implement them nearly two decades ago, some still see them as problematic

“I think that a lot of graduate students are skeptical of online votes in a variety of contexts,” said Council of Graduate Students president Andrew McNally.

COGS holds its leadership elections using paper ballots, McNally said, and prohibits online voting in its constitution bylaws.

“All of it’s done with everyone in the room in real time with that opportunity for debate,” said COGS executive board member Keaton Miller, adding that online elections can limit students’ involvement in student government discussions.

COGS members recently resisted adopting an online student body election for its top leaders.

Meanwhile, Mixon said he sees what happened with PASA’s election process as a learning experience.

“For us, as the public affairs school, we’re training students to handle all sorts of public challenges,” he said.