Election Oversight Best Practices

December 14th, 2014 by David Simms

Categorized as: Election Tips

Election Oversight Best Practices

I’ve seen cases where the individual overseeing an election is also a candidate in the election. While this might seem like an obviously bad approach, it does happen, and because it happens, it raises the question of who should have oversight of an organization’s election process.

I don’t consider there to be a one-size-fits-all approach. ElectionsOnline hosts elections for everything from small community groups with only a handful of voters to large professional associations with tens of thousands of voters. As you might imagine election procedures vary wildly between those two extremes but what follows are some suggestions you can compare your organization against to see if perhaps you should be doing some things differently.

Perhaps the least sound approach is for there to be a single administrator who is also on the ballot. An election administrator has access to the voter roster which includes the usernames and passwords for the voters. Having access to that is useful as it permits the administrator to provide quick service to any voter who needs support. For example the administrator can confirm that a voter is in fact included in the voter roster and even test that the login data is working. The voter roster can also be imported into any bulk email tool should a client wish to send their own customized emails rather than to use those generated by the ElectionsOnline software. But having access to the voter roster also means the administrator could login as any voter and cast a ballot, voting for himself along the way. Doing so of course would be a very foolish thing to do since the actual voter, assuming he/she has an email address on record, would receive a ballot confirmation email even though he/she never passed through the ballot, thereby raising questions among the electorate about the election’s validity. The larger weakness is that the administrator has the ability to submit ballots as a client rather than as a voter. This capability exists as one option for submitting a paper ballot into the system and when using this approach, there is no email sent to any voter. The only evidence that it would have occurred is on the results page which shows the number of ballots cast by voters versus the number cast by the client.

Suffice it to say if your name’s on the ballot, you really shouldn’t be in charge of administering an election. A more defensible approach is for the administrator to be a disinterested individual who handles ballot setup, then lets the chips fall where they may. But the key word here is “disinterested.” Simply because an individual’s name isn’t on the ballot doesn’t mean that individual’s disinterested. For example, it’s not uncommon for the staff of a professional association to favor one candidate over another. Consider the following sequence of events for an election administered by a single individual. 

  1. The administrator checks the election results towards the end of an election.
  2. Determines that if the favored candidate receives just one more vote it could tip the outcome.
  3. Believes he/she could get away with submitting a ballot since no one will ever know about it. (Though there is an audit trail to assist with spotting this.)

So while this disinterested individual approach is an improvement, it’s still not 100% foolproof.

An even more sound approach then is to have a election oversight committee whose only interest is ensuring the validity of the election process. One or more of the individuals on this committee will have the login data to the election administration account and be free to log in at any time and check the number of ballots cast to cross-reference that with the number of voters on record as having voted. The two numbers should either match exactly, or it should be possible to account for any difference between the two (and there are sometimes differences). Any committee member may also check the number of ballots cast by voters, versus the number cast by the client. For any ballot cast by the client, the committee should be able to reconcile that against paper ballots received.

Having a multi-member election oversight committee is a very sound and defensible approach, but for an even higher level of oversight, the election could be put in the hands of a third-party election administration company that handles setup, voter support, results reporting and anything else. ElectionsOnline’s partners provide precisely this type of service but it is admittedly not for everyone. It incurs additional expenses and can mean there’s some latency in responding to any voter support matters since a voter may contact your organization directly only to be informed that they need to contact the administration company. Nevertheless, it assures that an organization is completely hands off which can be a very important thing for some electorates.

There is one last approach, a hybrid approach, which combines the best of the last two options. Most clients appreciate very much having the ability to configure the election themselves as it permits them to make immediate modifications to things like typos in a candidate biography; getting the candidate photos sized and cropped just right; and ensuring all the voting rules are in place on the ballot. Once they’ve done all that, they then hand the election over to one of ElectionsOnline’s partners who then takes over and oversees the election from the start to the finish of the actual voting period. This way the client enjoys the cost savings of setting things up themselves and also the real-time responsiveness of being able to configure every part of the ballot to their liking, but also enjoys the security of having the election overseen by a third-party specialist once the voting begins.

I’m not making any recommendations on which way is best. That is for you to decide and what’s right for a large organization with a contentious election and litigious voters may not be right for a small club where everyone knows everyone else. But hopefully this has provided a useful set of baselines so you can see how your organization compares.