Technical glitches mar TCU election

An error message appears for a voter on the Voatz web portal at 1:15 a.m. on April 15. Courtesy Maya Kurzman

The Tufts Community Union (TCU) elections were hit by a series of technical errors and ballot mix-ups which prevented dozens of students from casting ballots.

Hundreds of students who were studying abroad were not granted ballot access by Tufts Technology Services (TTS) and Voatz, the online election platform, and other students who tried to vote via Voatz’s web portal reported having their votes rejected.

Candidate Sharif Hamidi, a junior, appeared on both the ballots for Class of 2021 Senator and for Class of 2022 Senator while Tim Leong, a candidate for Class of 2022 Senator did not initially appear on the ballot.

Officials from the Election Commission (ECOM) and Voatz said they were working to iron out the issues. ECOM announced today in a statement on Facebook at about 4 p.m. EDT that the study abroad students had been granted access by email.

“The election results will be legitimate and accurate,” ECOM Chair Matt Zachem wrote in an email to the Daily.

Zachem, a sophomore, said an extension of the voting period, which is currently slated to end at midnight tomorrow, is under consideration but no decision has been made yet.

Spencer Ha, ECOM’s technician, said he alerted Voatz about the ballot errors soon after voting began this morning and the company placed Hamidi and Leong on the correct ballots by 1 a.m.

ECOM sent Voatz a correct list of candidates last week and the mix-up seems to be due to human error at the company, Ha said.

Hilary Braseth, the vice president of product at Voatz, said that students who voted with the incorrect ballots will receive an email from the company this afternoon with instructions on how to vote with corrected ballots.

Braseth said a very small number of votes were affected by the error. In addition, seven students are vying for seven Class of 2022 seats, so the error will have no impact on that race’s result.

ECOM learned of the ballot access issues for students who were studying abroad early this morning.

Ha said that TTS failed to transfer the student files of around 500 students who were studying abroad this semester to Voatz. Without the files, the company could not grant ballot access to the students.

 “Obviously this is a huge concern for ECOM. We can’t have such a large and such an important part of our student body not be able to vote,” Ha said.

Braseth said that Voatz only received the files from TTS at noon today.

Alex Lein, who is running for a Class of 2021 Senate seat and was studying abroad in Morocco until his program was canceled in March, had not received a ballot as of 2 p.m. today.

“It’s an extremely challenging time to be hosting an election, and because of that, I’m especially understanding of the technical glitches that may occur,” he wrote in an electronic message. “I think it’s reflective of a larger issue associated with holding an election at this moment, which has to do more with how students’ voices and abilities to participate might be impacted by the circumstances.”

Lein added that he appreciates the work ECOM is doing to remedy the issues.

Some students also reported issues with Voatz’s web portal to ECOM this morning. A small number of students received internal server error messages when they attempted to cast their votes while others received messages saying their attempt to vote was unsuccessful, Ha said.

Some students voting in the Africana Community Senator election received messages falsely asserting that they had already voted, according to ECOM’s Election Day troubleshooting guide.

Braseth said that Voatz is working diligently to fix the errors. She said that students should refresh their browser, delete their cached search history and use Google Chrome if they encounter problems voting on the web portal.

Braseth said that, despite the technical issues, more than 700 students had successfully cast ballots by 2 p.m. today. 

“This election is new for all of us, we’re all in uncharted territory. Never has there been a completely online election,” Ha said. “We do understand that there’s so much frustration, we’re frustrated with the way this election is going as well.”

Some students are calling on ECOM to drop the Voatz platform in future elections in the wake of the technical errors that have plagued the election.

In February, ECOM had to extend in-person voting in a special election due to technical difficulties on the Voatz application.

Leong, the candidate whose name did not initially appear on the ballot, said in an electronic message that he was glad that the problem was resolved quickly, and that he does not take the mistake personally.

 “It is, however, an illustration of Voatz’s failure as a system of representation,” he wrote. “Over multiple elections, Voatz has prevented students from voting, through system errors, incomprehensible design, and even ID requirements.”

Leong called on ECOM to find a different voting platform.

Zachem said that ECOM’s contract with Voatz expires this summer, and the organization will experiment with software from Qualtrics during TCU Senate’s internal elections to determine whether it is a viable alternative.

Braseth said the company is committed to delivering accurate election results and values its partnership with ECOM.

“Being able to work with Tufts students is extremely valuable for us to get the most critical and also valuable feedback on user experience,” she said. “Keeping the pulse on what college students want and need is very helpful and enlightening for us to be able to work with you all.

Electronic voting has come under scrutiny after the failure of an untested application in the Iowa caucuses delayed results for days. Voatz, which was not involved in the Iowa debacle, faced criticism for glaring cybersecurity deficiencies discovered by Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers and other analysts in recent months.

Two candidates violated election rules

Zachem said that two TCU candidates breached election rules by posting campaign messages on social media without approval from ECOM.

ECOM has decided not to disqualify the two candidates, who Zachem declined to name.

After taking into consideration the challenges posed by holding elections remotely, we recognized that we could not as easily convey the rules to candidates as we could have under normal circumstances,” he said.

The violations fell under Section E of the TCU ECOM General Election Rules, which stipulate that “mass messaging via an online forum is explicitly forbidden unless first sent through ECOM.”

The candidates removed the posts and were issued a warning by ECOM.

Clarification: This article has been updated to attribute information about the election for Africana Community Senator to ECOM’s troubleshooting guide.