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Thursday, October 06, 2022

SG voting: An inside look at how it works at UF and other schools

<p>Warren Burgher, 19, a mechanical engineering junior, votes in the Reitz Union computer lab on Sept. 27 for the SG elections.</p>

Warren Burgher, 19, a mechanical engineering junior, votes in the Reitz Union computer lab on Sept. 27 for the SG elections.

In September, about 8,000 UF students threaded their ways through fliers, stickers, party supporters and snaking lines to vote at the on-campus polls.

The Fall 2011 Student Government Senate elections were the first time SG implemented the new electronic voting system. Students were able to vote on computers at 11 on-campus polling locations.

However, results generated by electronic voting were thrown into question when 535 students voted on District E ballots, up from 65 in 2010's paper-ballot elections. Fall elections are location-based, and District E is the voting district for commuter students.

An investigation by the Election Commission determined that students' addresses were not taken from information students are required to update each year. Students whose permanent, nonlocal addresses were put into the voting system would have been placed in District E.

Some computers crashed, and students were turned away from polls.

The integrity of UF's paper-ballot system was called into question during the Spring 2011 executive and Senate elections. Three students said they had cast multiple ballots.

Former Senate President Micah Lewis, who took office in Spring, said fixing the weaknesses of the elections system was high-priority. He said that before he proposed the new system during the summer, he researched secure-location online voting.

Schools like Florida State University and the University of Central Florida, as well as the University of Georgia, have held online voting elections for at least five years, student government officials at these schools said.

The University of South Florida adopted a similar system in Spring 2011. FSU, UCF, UGA and USF students can vote in their schools' unrestricted voting systems from any computer anywhere through the online university accounts.

Lewis said he did not look at other schools' voting systems but instead focused on the 2005 electronic voting attempt at UF and how to improve on it.

He said he still thinks secure-location electronic voting is the best way for UF to conduct elections.

UF Student Body Treasurer T.J. Villamil said allowing students to vote on any computer would open students up to pressure from other students and could present security problems. He said security was the biggest factor in SG choosing the current voting system.

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Villamil said he was also on board with the switch to UF's secure-location electronic voting because it saved the school money.

He said the new electronic voting system is given a budget of $25,000 each year. The paper ballots cost UF about $50,000.

FSU Supervisor of Elections Juliet Kesilyas said she has a $10,000 budget for advertising the elections and a $1,000 budget for miscellaneous costs.

The Student Government Association at USF hires Votenet, an outside company, instead of relying on the university's information technology department as the other three schools do. It costs the school about $7,000 each year.

UCF, FSU and UGA student government officials could not find any direct costs attached to holding unrestricted online voting.

Several UF SG officials have spoken out against implementing unrestricted online voting.

They say it would make it easier for students to pressure each other into voting for a specific candidate or SG political party.

Senate President Andy Mason said that while unrestricted online voting is the easiest method, polling stations protect the integrity of a student's vote from pressure by fellow students.

At UCF, student pressure to vote a certain way is an "issue of concern," said Student Government Association spokeswoman Ashley Tinstman. She said when UCF Senate candidates campaign, they can have laptops in their tents with them so students can vote there, but candidates can't direct students to vote a certain way.

The Election Commission at UCF also sets up a tent on campus where students can learn about the school's student government and elections from a neutral source.

Tinstman said student government cannot control what students do in their homes.

Candidates at USF police each other, said the school's supervisor of elections, James Bodden.

"They understand that any advantage another candidate gets could potentially hurt them," he said. USF does not have political parties.

Concerns about student pressure were raised, and volunteers patrol the campus to deter infractions, he said.

UGA's student government has also taken a proactive role recently.

Attorney General and head of the Elections Committee Wes Robinson said that until changes began in the spring, the executive candidates on a ticket would assemble Senate candidates to support their platform.

Robinson said the Senate candidates were "just running off of whatever the executive ticket wanted." New rules at UGA prohibit that.

He said the Elections Committee has since become more involved in the elections.

The committee proposes changes to Senate, drives around campus to check that candidates are campaigning correctly and hears complaints.

"Virtually every aspect of elections falls under our responsibility," he said.

UF Supreme Court Chief Justice Matt Michel said the role of the Election Commission is defined in the SG Election Code. The Commission hears complaints and recommends to the Senate whether results should be validated.

The Senate has the authority to vote on changes to the codes.

"They have pretty broad discretion as to what they want the Election Commission to do or not do," he said.

The commission heard the appeal from members of the Students Party on Sept. 30 and denied it.

After the decision, party members took the appeal to UF's Supreme Court. Court Justices heard the appeal and ordered the commission to investigate the procedures.

The court decided not to order new elections but asserted its right to do so and suggested the Senate make changes to the election codes.

Justice Tim Mason said at an Oct. 12 meeting that he did not want to see the same issues resurface before the court.

"I'm going to be less forgiving," he said.

Lewis said some codes should be addressed before spring elections, but he isn't convinced that unrestricted online voting could maintain privacy of student votes.

He said SG and its culture might set the school apart, and challenges at UF might not be issues at other universities.

"The excitement and intricacy that surrounds elections is much more pronounced [at UF]," he said.

Jeanna Mastrodicasa, assistant vice president for Student Affairs at UF, said she knows other schools successfully use unrestricted online voting, but administrators don't make changes to the voting system.

She said it's up to students and SG to decide on unrestricted or secure-location electronic voting.

"If that's what the students want to do, they can make it happen," she said.

At Tuesday night's Senate meeting, Mason announced 11 senators who will serve on the committee to revise elections rules. Sens. Matt Mountjoy and Katie Waldman will lead them.

Waldman said implementing a new system is a possibility. She plans to look at systems used at schools like Ohio State University, the University of South Carolina and the University of Alabama.

"I think we're going to look at the whole system from the top down," she said.

Warren Burgher, 19, a mechanical engineering junior, votes in the Reitz Union computer lab on Sept. 27 for the SG elections.

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