Why I voted to approve Simply Voting for the UTSU election

I apologize for this taking longer than I said it would, but I decided to work on my homework instead, which is probably more important than student politicking.  I did, however, promise to give a full explanation of the title question, so without further ado, in two parts, here’s why I voted to approve the use of Simply Voting as the UTSU’s online election system.

Part 1. The decision back in the fall

There were three criteria that were involved in my decision, as follows:

1. Security and Reliability

Given that my reputation would be on the line if the system crashed, and given that the UTSU had spent the last couple years arguing that online voting was too unreliable and unsafe to be trusted, I really wanted online voting to go off without a hitch.  Knowing nothing about online security, I researched the causes of other system crashes (e.g. at western) and requirements for good online security.  The Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP) has a guide of the top ten online application security risks, which I read cover-to-cover.  Based on my understanding, the Simply Voting system seemed to take most of the precautions needed to ensure a secure election.

Furthermore, the system had to always be up.  Voting.Utoronto had crashed in the trin and engineering fee diversion referenda. By using cloud servers, and by having backups, Simply Voting had the scalability and redundancy needed to ensure the system always worked.  Simply Voting also agrees to pay back $1000 per hour crashed, so their money and their mouth were clearly in the same place.

2. Background of the system itself

Simply voting started in 2003 as the election system for the McGill student union (SSMU), a long-time non-CFS member.  From my own research, I found that it is used by the student unions at UBC, McMaster, and Mount Allison, all non-CFS student unions.  This ruled out the possibility of any political issues with the system, at least from an “opposition” standpoint.

3. Features

The ERC required a system that could integrate well with U of T’s authentication systems and paper balloting (not my personal preference, but the ERC decided to offer both), as well as offer a range of options for ballot display, vote types, etc.  Unlike voting.utoronto, simply voting is used as the central system for paper and online ballots.  When you get a paper ballot at a booth, the simply voting system registers that you have voted, and indicates which ballots you are eligible for to the poll clerks.  To use paper ballots with voting.utoronto, all ballots would have to be double-enveloped, so that the identity of the voter could be checked against the online record before counting each ballot.  Put simply, using paper and online ballots using voting.utoronto would be a huge pain.  As for U of T’s authentication, the utorid system (shibboleth single-sign-on) plugs right into Simply Voting, making coordination with the U of T admin easy.

I should also note that there were extensive consultations undertaken with the U of T administration about the Simply Voting system, which resulted in the University’s approval of the system.

So, that’s how I made my decision at the time.  Now, I’d like to go a little further, and compare voting.utoronto and Simply Voting on some key features.

Part 2. Voting.utoronto (VU) vs. Simply Voting (SV)

Member Messaging System

Using the utorid system, SV can email every voter on the list. VU can’t. Sadly, U of T admin doesn’t allow UTSU to use this feature.

Results Availability

VU results are available for three weeks only, and (as far as I understand) give you totals and a pie chart.  SV gives you much better data, though that hasn’t ever been released, and can give an anonymized list of each ballot cast.

Accessibility

SV is audited to comply with WCAG-2 accessibility requirements, and according to this test (Simply Voting Accessibility Test), has no serious problems.  I did the same test on VU (Voting.Utoronto Accessibility Test), and the results were less good.

Mobile

Both systems have terrible mobile sites, though I guess only having one format makes it more easy to maintain security.

Paper Trail

SV gives voters a receipt which can be verified against the aforementioned list of anonymized ballots using the key provided to the voter.  Whether UTSU releases this list is another matter, but you can still go on utsu.simplyvoting.com and get your receipt.  VU does not do this.

Ballot Options

You can have pictures on SV, but not on VU.  In all honesty, this isn’t really an important feature, but I thought I’d list it anyway.

Introductory Text

SV can have a introductory text before the ballot.  This could be used for things such as explaining how a preferential ballot works (if UTSU ever adopts it), or for saying things like “If someone is campaigning to you while you’re reading this, report them to the CRO for breaking the rules”  As far as I know, VU does not have this feature.

Ranked Ballot

VU can’t do ranked ballots.  SV can.  In fact, it can do Single Transferable Vote, Hare-Clark, Alternative Voting, Instant Runoff Voting counting, and Condorcet Ranked Pairs.  So, if UTSU used VU, it wouldn’t be able to switch to ranked ballots.

Support

SV comes with 24/7 support, whereas VU only comes with support from U of T student life, and mostly just for technical issues.

But what about Trin’s Voting system?

Trinity college does ranked-ballot voting with paper receipts automatically sent to voters through a system set up with Trin IT.  Apparently this was much cheaper than SV, but with the pressure to not have the system crash and the range of features and support available by default on SV, I have no problem with spending more money for an election that has a higher chance of avoiding technical issues by virtue of being run by an established outfit.

Is the $10,000 price tag worth it?

The $10,000 pays for a year-long contract for the UTSU’s fall and spring elections.  With the features and reliability outlined above I believe the price tag is reasonable.  $55,000 was budgeted for election operations in 2012-13, and $54,000 was budgeted this year, meaning that the cost hasn’t really changed with the implementation of online voting.  (Actual, i.e. non-budgeted costs vary due to recounts and reimbursements).

Questions, Comments?

Simply Voting isn’t perfect.  What I’m trying to argue here is why I thought it was good enough to approve for the UTSU elections.  If you have any complaints about the system, or criticisms/comments on any of the above, I’d love to hear from you.  If you have complaints/comments about the UTSU elections not directly related to the techical capabilities of the online voting system, I’d still like to hear them, but keep in mind that this post isn’t meant to address those issues.  You can see some of my opinions on stuff like voting hours here.

My email is b.coleman@utsu.ca

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