Elections and the voting systems they use are critical aspects of any democratic institution. Despite this, when elections roll around, most people end up focusing on the campaign, the “who” they will vote for, not the voting system, or the “how” they will vote. This focus on the “who” means voting systems and rules of elections are often ignored by the world at large until necessity demands a change.
This exact situation has been playing out over the last few weeks for UCD Students’ Union (SU) as the COVID-19 pandemic has forced a wholesale rethink of how the SU conducts its elections. The complete shutdown of UCD campus has necessitated a move to online voting alongside changes to campaign rules in order to allow the election to go ahead. Needless to say the Returning Officer in charge of the election has little choice in the matter and has been placed in the unenviable position of trying to run these elections under incredibly difficult circumstances. Though the fact that he has been forced to consider changes to the voting system on the fly just shows how little anyone has thought about the system up until now.
The sudden shift to online voting is perhaps the greatest risk that the SU is taking with this election, given that online voting is riddled with flaws at the best of times. Fundamentally online voting has always struggled to balance the need to be a secure system, to allow secret ballots and to ensure a transparent outcome. The fact that many candidates have found themselves in the dark about plans until late in the day, doesn’t inspire confidence in a system that fundamentally requires it.
Too many points of failure exist along the chain, from receiving instructions on how to vote, to the votes being counted and verified. Too much happens away from the view of the voter, deep in the lines of code making up whatever program they choose to use. Even if one could guarantee this all works as intended, the inability to independently verify the vote like one can with a paper ballot could be just as harmful to legitimacy. It is quite possible that the Returning Officer will be questioned over how exactly candidates, who can’t see the votes being counted can trust the outcome, especially if it is a close race.
The fact that the SU is going to require students to explicitly register to vote online also kicks to the curb the main argument in favour of online voting, namely that’s its more accessible. The possibility that we could see a lower turnout while using a more accessible system is simply shocking.
While this is only a Students’ Union election and the world is not going to come to an end as a result, it does raise a question for the incoming sabbatical team, whomever they may be: Can they claim democratic legitimacy if this vote is contested? What if a candidate challenges the vote on the basis that they have voters who couldn’t get access, or worse yet, a voter can vote numerous times? On a far simpler level, what happens if people can’t register on time? No communication has gone out to students at the time of writing about this need to register, and with so much going on surely the more notice the better? Any one of these could see the incoming team be dogged by these questions, and at the moment, we know far too little about how these will be avoided.
The Returning Officer is in an impossible situation in this case, and some leniency will have to be shown given the circumstances. That being said, the Union cannot allow the policy that has been hastily constructed in a time of crisis to become their rulebook going forward. If the Union wants to do online voting, it needs to properly consider the reasons for doing so, and how it can be done in a manner that maintains trust in the system.
Aaron Bowman – Former Tribune Editor