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Low Voter Turnout via Athena Blamed on Lack of Publicity

By Sarah Y. Keightley
Executive Editor

Last week's Undergraduate Association elections marked the second year where students could cast their votes on Athena. However, because of poor publicity electronic voting was not as popular this year, according to Director of the Information Services Group J. Paul Kirby '92.

In last week's elections, 473 votes were cast electronically, and about 800 were cast on paper, said Kirby, who designed the electronic voting system.

Kirby noted that more people voted electronically than on paper last year; out of 1815 ballots, 931 were cast on Athena and 884 were cast on paper.

This year, 642 connections were made to the voting system, according to Kirby. Last year 1317 connections were made, 503 from the fifth-floor Student Center cluster alone, he said.

Last year's increase in voter turnout from 30 to 40 percent was attributed to the electronic voting system.

The electronic voting program this year was similar to the one last year, but turnout fell below 30 percent, Kirby said. There was a lack of publicity this year, and Information Systems was not able to provide usernames for all of the eligible voters, he said.

System provides convenience

The electronic voting system is significant because it is "one of the first instances in America where optimally convenient voting exists," Kirby said.

"The biggest barrier to people turning out to vote is convenience," Kirby said. People either do not know how to register to vote, or voting times are inconvenient, he explained. At MIT, "everyone has access to Athena, and almost everyone uses it.

Karen E. Schmitt '95 said she voted on Athena because it was convenient. Schmitt thinks there was definitely less publicity about the electronic voting system this year. She said she was not planning to vote, but she received electronic mail from a friend who was running and who told her how to vote over Athena.

Andrew Gouldstone '96, who voted electronically, also noted the convenience. He said he saw how to access the system in The Tech. Moreover, he showed other people who did not know how to access the system.

UA to present system at conference

In April, UA representatives will present the system at a conference hosted by Lead or Leave, a nation-wide lobbying group for students. Student government leaders, as well as leaders in business and government, will attend. One of the task forces will focus on using technology for political change, Kirby said. They will also talk about Tech Info and Mosaic, he said.

UA President Hans C. Godfrey '93 said he has already mentioned the UA's electronic voting system at a meeting with other Boston student government presidents. These students were interested in the idea because it would increase voter turnout, he said.

Some universities, such as Stanford University and Boston University, set up terminals for voting in a common area, Kirby said. But "this is the first time that pre-existing technology has been used for voting. That uniqueness really comes from Athena's uniqueness," he said.

Survey on electronic voting

The UA has recently sent out a survey on electronic voting to 25 percent of undergraduates. This is to "see why people vote in UA elections and how, if at all, electronic voting changes things," Kirby said.

The survey will see if fewer students voted electronically because of the lack of publicity or because of the lack of interest in the elections.

Last year's election commission "spent a great deal of effort putting posters everywhere," Kirby said. "This year, on the other hand, the election commission publicized electronic voting very poorly," he continued.

Amy C. Hsiao '96, who voted in person, said she wanted to vote electronically but did not know how.

Godfrey agreed that the lack of publicity explains why electronic voting was not widely used this year. The election commission was appointed late, and they were not properly trained, he said.

The voting program requires students' usernames, and IS was less cooperative this year in giving out these usernames, Kirby said. Though the Registrar's list changes slightly, it does not get picked up by IS, making it "pesky for electronic voting," he said.

IS could not produce the usernames of 250 students last year, and 350 students this year. The UA has to look up individual usernames when IS does not include them, Kirby said.