By James Keller
UPDATE: Voting has been extended to Monday the 18th. Visit the SU Web site at www.su.ucalgary.ca for details.
A collective “Ooops” was figuratively heard from the Students’ Union offices when it dawned on election officials and SU executives that nobody could vote.
Would-be voters who logged on to the SU Web site on Wed., March 13 to cast an online ballot for the 2002 General Election, found only a message to try again later because the system was awaiting “official verification.”
According to SU President Barb Wright, the delay was due to password difficulties with the Web server’s security certificate, intended to prevent vote tampering.
“When we tried to get the system online, our password didn’t work,” said Wright. “We’re still trying to figure out why.”
Chief Returning Officer Jordana Hennigan said voting could have started without the certificate, but election officials decided to wait until the certificate was fixed.
“Because election security is so important, we did not want to start voting until we were able to show the students our security certificate was valid,” said Hennigan.
Online polls and polling stations, which are not carrying hard copy ballots, were closed until 2:55 p.m. on Wed., March 13, putting the SU in violation of their election bylaws. An emergency meeting of the Students’ Legislative Council meeting on Thu., March 14, will address the three-day polling bylaw requirement.
“We need to extend voting a day and it has to be a day when there are classes,” explained Wright.
While supplemental voting could occur on Saturday, as there are weekend university classes, Wright will recommend Monday.
“I think it’s ethical to wait until Monday,” she said. “It’s unfortunate that candidates will have to wait for results.”
Hennigan echoed Wright’s bylaw infringement concerns and noted Monday voting satisfies the three-day voting requirement of election bylaws.
“We want three full days of voting for election fairness,” said Hennigan. “[Otherwise,] if someone chose to, they could take [the violation] to the review board and overturn the election.”
Student reaction, while mostly confused, hasn’t been entirely negative.
“From people I’ve talked to, they’re glad we’re doing an online voting system but they wish it was ready when it was supposed to be,” said Wright. “My biggest concern is that people who had gone to vote today, and weren’t able to, won’t vote at all.”
Before polling was to begin, the SU and an outside consultant tested the online system extensively both before and after the security certificate was installed, according to Wright.
“It seemed to work with all the test voting they did,” said Wright, adding that successful tests were conducted as late as Tuesday, the day before voting was schedled to begin. “From the last time that the last test was conducted, we thought everything was up and running.”
According to University of Calgary Webmaster Mike Morrow, security certificate applicants must generate a request containing information about the Web server, the organization it belongs to, and a password that is sent to a Certificate Authority, who then verifies the applicant’s identity.
“When you start the server software, you need to retype the password,” said Morrow, who was not involved with the SU online voting system. “There can be a gap of several days between generating a certificate and getting the information to the [Web] server. In that time, it is quite possible and feasible that someone forgot the password.”
Password failure could also be due to certificate corruption when the computer-generated certificate request is transmitted to Verisign, a Certificate Authority. According to Morrow this is very unlikely.
“It’s never happened in my experience,” said Morrow. “If the SU could decode other information in the certificate, chances are pretty good that it wasn’t damaged in transit. It is unlikely that only the password component is corrupted.”
While the SU investigates the failure, elections will continue.
“As with any new system, I don’t think we can anticipate these problems before they happen,” said Hennigan. “Now that this is fixed, I believe it will run smoothly.”
Hennigan expected a change in voter turnout due to online voting, but could not say how the glitch would affect results.
“It’s hard because we expect a different turnout [because of online voting], but we can’t compare this to another election,” said Hennigan. “It’s difficult to say whether or not this will be detrimental.”