The Students’ Union at University College Cork was established in 1973 but its roots go back to a students’ representative council founded in 1908. It is run by six full time officers elected by the student body, and this democratic process has always been at the heart of the Students’ Unions’ activities; traditions have grown up around officer elections from nominations, on campus campaigning, voting and the all-important count. So when the Covid pandemic halted life as normal on campus, a planned future move to online elections became an urgent priority for the March 2021 elections.
The decision was made in February 2021 to implement MSL Elections following recommendations from colleagues at other student’s unions in Ireland. As lockdown threatened and with nominations already in the calendar for mid-March, due diligence, implementation and training on the new system were successfully expedited without the need for any delay to voting and the count.
As the first online count began, it became apparent that more voters than ever had taken advantage of the online process, with an increase of 37% on the 2020 elections turn out and all posts counted and filled without controversy or need for re-counts.
Expediting the move to digital democracy
Elections for officers at the Students’ Union had always been paper based, with many traditions enjoyed by participants – from face to face nomination submissions, on campus campaigning, in person ballot stations for two days of voting to the count traditionally held in secret with candidates' representatives present but unable to communicate with the candidate or their supporters until the results were announced. In 2020 online voting was only available for students on Erasmus and work placement which made up less than 4% of the vote that year.
As the pandemic took hold in early 2020 all classes went online which would remain the situation for the following 12 months, leaving the Students’ Union to take the only practical solution of going online for its next election. Whilst online elections were likely to be introduced in the future, there had been no particular urgency to make changes as the established processes worked well. But in 2020 as nominations closed and candidates started campaigning, the College began placing restrictions on activities taking place on campus.
Things changed on an hourly basis for our 31 candidates in 2020 as the College acted on new government pandemic updates. As restrictions were imposed, campaigning still continued in person but there were more stringent guidelines about handing out food products and physical contact - John McSweeney, Director of Elections, University College Cork Students' Union
With this unprecedented change to college life and the impact on students’ union democracy, a new digital approach was needed, and quickly.
Enhancing existing processes
During the winter of 2020-21, the team reviewed their options and asked colleagues at other student's unions in Ireland for their recommendations.
We discovered that many had already chosen to use MSL’s online elections and so the fact that MSL had an established track record of delivering secure and reliable online elections helped our cause. In February 2021, the Students’ Union, College IT services and the MSL technical team came together to address data security concerns and we were happy for the new system to be put in place - John McSweeney, Director of Elections
The Students’ Union chose to retain some of its processes knowing that MSL Elections would support the critical vote and count stages. The nominations stage had previously required a candidate to gather 500 signatures to support their nomination. Each candidate would present these signatures in person to the Returning Officer, confirming the post they wished to stand for and providing their manifesto. In 2021, this stage went fully online using Google Docs to collect 10 supporters’ names per candidate of which a random selection would be contacted to verify their support, and the candidate then providing their manifesto digitally.
The count stage usually had some drama associated with it, often continuing late into the night with the complete count sometimes lasting 12 hours. A central meeting point would be used by candidates supporters to gather ready for results announced every couple of hours. Some years would see a very close contest for posts requiring a manual re-count, including one year where just six votes separated two candidates for president. In 2021, the election results were first announced to the candidates' representatives by the Returning Officer via Microsoft Teams, where the reps had the opportunity to offer a challenge to the results (none did), and then the Students' Union President announced the results in batches publicly via Facebook.
In 2022 it is hoped that the tradition and some of that sense of ceremony will return with a face to face gathering of representatives, all supported by the online count courtesy of MSL - John McSweeney, Director of Elections
In 2021 the voting stage took place over three days and, whilst the current Students’ Union executive are to decide if that will continue in 2022, it proved to be a valuable opportunity to reach potential voters who may not have participated in previous years.
The impact of a fully online vote
The primary concern for the Students’ Union as they prepared for two days of online voting was security and the ability of MSL Elections to cope with a surge in traffic as people placed votes. In previous years, votes were consistent across both days; however, the buzz around the online vote in 2021 saw 4,000 votes placed on the first day.
We had planned for this level of interest and so prior to the vote opening for all voters, we asked a number of students to place their vote at the same time to check the system worked as expected. Fortunately, everything went very smoothly – in fact only one student contacted us to say they couldn't vote, and that was due to their not having completed their online registration - John McSweeny, Director of Elections
The Students’ Union also provided a video on the election web pages to guide voters through the Proportional Representation vote whereas in previous years volunteers at ballot stations would have been trained to help voters.
And the results? In 2020, 4,300 votes were cast. In 2021, that increased to 5,910 votes cast with all posts filled including some uncontested ones and the first female president elected in 18 years.