The Covid-19 crisis has forced nearly every college body to adapt their traditional methods of operation. Online exams and lectures have been the focal point of discussion and criticism, but non-academic areas of College have been equally challenged. With voting scheduled to begin on May 27, the Graduate Students’ Union (GSU) has had no choice but to move their election online. The transition has been relatively pain-free so far, but the most significant difference to previous years will be the actual voting process, which will be carried out using the Mi-Voice online voting software. While not completely unprecedented, this is the first time a students’ union election in Trinity will be held fully online, and may serve as an experiment for the viability of online voting in future elections.
Online voting has been used in Trinity elections in the past. Both Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) and the GSU have offered remote voting services for students that cannot access physical polling stations. The University of Limerick (UL) has held fully online elections for a number of years, while Technological University Dublin (TU Dublin) recently moved to online voting as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Trinity’s students’ unions have previously used services like Google Docs and Survey Monkey to allow for remote voting, but for a move to fully online elections, the GSU felt it necessary to upgrade their software. A number of online programmes exist to facilitate online elections, and demand for their services has only increased in the time of Covid-19. Speaking to Trinity News, Chair of the GSU Electoral Commission John Tighe said that they chose Mi-Voice as it had been used in elections by other committees within Trinity: “We knew they would need to go through the GDPR process and be approved by the data protection office, so we felt it was the easiest way of getting an outside body in without having to sign new agreements with the College.”
Following an online election hustings that was marred by connection problems, Tighe was confident that similar issues would not arise during the election: “Mi-Voice is a secure server, we have no issues with that.” Mi-Voice’s website boasts an impressive portfolio of clients, including the British government’s Electoral Modernisation Programme, the Scottish National Party, and the Scout Association.
Electronic and online voting methods have been a point of debate for a number of years. Those in favour of these methods argue that they are more accessible, providing opportunities for voters outside of the country to have their say in elections. Opponents often argue that electronic voting processes are more susceptible to voter fraud and less trustworthy than traditional methods. Such concerns generally apply to the context of large national elections, and are somewhat less relevant when considering lower scale college elections. Online voting, and an online election more broadly will also result in a reduced carbon footprint without the need for physical leaflets and voting slips. Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, calls for a transition to online voting in national elections have increased, as crowded polling stations can become hotbeds for infection.
The voting process is not the only part of this election that has moved online. Candidates have been unable to canvas face to face with students, and the GSU has had to adapt their campaign guidelines. Tighe hired former GSU communications officer Alexander Cosgrove to help make voter outreach as efficient as possible. “I didn’t want to be flooding people’s emails with messages about the election. Social media has been a large part of election campaigns in the past, but this year it has taken centre stage as the principal platform for campaigning. Regarding the effects of an online election on voter engagement, Tighe said that there are more factors to consider than the voting process. Voter turnout will likely be lower, he believes, owing to the fact that there “isn’t that contact between campaigners and students”.
It is clear that online voting is the GSU’s only option, but this year may serve as a watershed for the future of SU elections. Tighe says that he would be happy to work with Mi-Voice again, saying that they have been very helpful, but that ultimately, the future of online elections will depend on voter turnout. If the process is successful, both the SU and GSU could consider it a viable option in the years to come, providing a more efficient, sustainable, and accurate election process.