For the first time ever, first-year students will be able to vote via the Internet in next week's Undergraduate Council general elections.
Electronic voting is gradually being phased in to help increase voter turnout and the speed and accuracy with which votes are counted, according to Eric M. Silberstein '98, a member of the council's election commission.
If this year's experiment is successful, upperclass students may get the same opportunity next year.
"We wanted to test this on a smaller group first before having the whole school vote this way," Silberstein said.
Last year's voter turnout for the council's general elections was around 25 percent, Silberstein said. Council members hope this system will encourage more people to vote in the popular elections of the council president and vice president slated to take place for the first time next year.
"I think this is a great tool," said Jonathan P. Feeney '97, a council presidential candidate who is outgoing co-chair of the council's Campus Life Committee.
"The most important mission of the council this semester is to prepare for the direct presidential elections. They could transform the council."
First-years were a natural choice for the electronic experiment for several reasons, Silberstein said.
"There are [computers] in the dining hall so when the U.C. tables there, we can help them use the system," he said. "Also, each class gets more and more computer literate and [first-years] have more accounts than any other class."
First-years who want to vote may do so at any computer on campus that is connected to the University network. There are three ways to enter the voting program.
Students can log on normally and type "vote" at the Unix prompt. Or they can enter "vote" instead of their login name if they don't have an e-mail account or have forgotten their passwords.
A third option is being developed to allow students to vote if part of the network is out of service.
After entering the voting program, students will provide their student ID numbers, first and last names and home zip codes.
Next, they can look at position papers for candidates. They then vote by ranking the candidates in their district.
A number of security measures have been put in place to reduce the risk of voter fraud, Silberstein said.
After a vote is registered, a computer program will automatically send an e-mail message to the account of the person who voted. The message will say a vote was received from that account and give the time it was received.
If any of that information is incorrect, the person is asked to call the council office.
"If somehow somebody knows your ID number and your home zip code, you'll get this message and you'll know you didn't vote then," Silberstein explained.
In addition, any student who tries to vote from an account from which a vote has already been recorded will receive a message telling them they have already voted.
Students whose voting privileges have been violated will be asked to call the council office.
"We've spent lots of time thinking about everything that could go wrong and doubling security measures," Silberstein said.
Silberstein has been working with Eugene E. Kim '96, former president of the Harvard Computer Society, to expunge the bugs in the system.
According to Kim, enough security measures have been put in the system to make it reliable.
"In my opinion, it will be more reliable than the paper system," he said. "It will definitely give you better results."
While the system is not foolproof, Kim said he is optimistic it will work out.
"Things can always go wrong, especially in the computer world. Worst-case scenario they'll have to go back to the paper system, but I've looked at the code and it looks good to me," Kim said.
The votes for all students, not just first-years, will be counted electronically. Electronic tallying will make vote counts much more accurate, Silberstein said.
"According to our constitution and bylaws, we use the Hare proportional system to tally votes, which is the same as the class marshal elections," he said.
"It has been confusing in the past and taken the entire weekend to complete. This should tally the votes much more quickly," he added.
Since the program relies in part on the Harvard Arts and Sciences Computer System and requires the use of ID numbers, council members have been consulting with Assistant Dean of Students Sarah E. Flatley. On Thursday, they received the final authorization to implement this system