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End Note

Guarding the Votes

Improving campus elections through better voter confidentiality and ballot security
University Business, Aug 2008

ONE DOES NOT HAVE TO look far in the news to witness the intense emotions released by academic elections relating to board of trustee matters--such as at Dartmouth. Just imagine throwing in uncertainty and doubt regarding confidentiality, fairness, and security concerns. A higher ed institution could wind up having far-reaching ramifications of "nuclear winter" scale to deal with. Many IHEs are woefully behind the times in the voting arena, particularly as it relates to security. The stakes here are high: hundreds of millions of dollars, not to mention the power and influence that is up for grabs.

Obviously, confidentiality and security are paramount in every election, public or private. When conducting a college or university voting project, it is crucial to authenticate voters' identification. Equally important is ensuring the voter's identity and actual vote selection are separated in a manner that prevents him or her from being "rejoined."

No pets or dead people or other abuses can be tolerated in the voting process.

Neither the election host nor a third party must be able to determine how a voter votes. Without adequate security measures, such as firewalls, an election's integrity can be compromised by a hacker who alters votes. It's also imperative that one qualified voter equals one vote. No pets or dead people or other abuses can be tolerated in this process.

IHEs, whose overriding mission is to teach, are, with few exceptions, in the dark ages with their own boards' nomination, election, and voting processes. Institutions that should be a model for democratic principles, in fact, often have no voting process at all, let alone voter security and safeguards.

Indeed, in a recent independent survey of 150 larger and more prestigious U.S. academic institutions, less than 15 percent had voter security safeguards in place. The majority did not have formal democratic nominations, contested elections, or term limits in place for their boards. Many boards simply nominate trustees, make rules, and vote on these matters among themselves. Frankly, this situation is more indicative of a rubber stamp dictatorship or the Politburo than what one would expect to find in academia!

I understand the challenges institutions face: a shortage of qualified, motivated talent to serve as trustees, limited financial resources and staffing, and IT-related issues. But a healthy, vibrant academic environment with active alumni participation must have open nomination processes, elections, term limits, and sophisticated voter security in place.

A wide range of elections taking place within academia would benefit from the voter confidentiality and ballot security measures now common in other public and private sectors. Whether the process is online or by paper in a vote-by-mail election, individuals managing the trustee election process must have several administrative procedures in place to protect the integrity of the election process. Three steps in the right direction:

--Give each eligible voter a unique identifier. This helps ensure that only eligible voters can participate and helps administrators to verify that all eligible voters were contacted about the voting process and provided information about the candidates.

--Set up a system to track receipt of completed ballots. The system should not allow individuals tabulating the election results to associate a completed ballot with an identifiable individual, however.

--Make sure the election process has a verifiable trail. Whether in paper or electronic form, it enables election officials to complete a recount of completed ballots in the event an election is challenged.

Many IHEs have their own internal processes and technologies for conducting elections. Some systems meet the criteria described above; most do not. In either case, election process legitimacy can be significantly enhanced if a qualified third-party election services provider, consultant, or nonprofit organization is part of the process. This helps protect the integrity of the process and reduce the likelihood that election results will be challenged after a vote count.

Perhaps it is high time for IHEs to lead the charge on democratic process and voter security as our world evolves from paper to online balloting. For important elections, it is imperative to handle all security aspects both efficiently and effectively.

Gregg McGilvray is CIO at Election Services Corporation,, which provides a suite of election management solutions related to database management, polling site and remote electronic voting, advanced security, accurate tabulation, and demographic reporting.