Students that count

UNR students are the first in Washoe County to test electronic voting

These UNR students got to participate in a relatively trouble-free election using e-voting.

These UNR students got to participate in a relatively trouble-free election using e-voting.

Photo By David Robert

Students who cast their vote for student government positions last week at the University of Nevada, Reno, could leave their No. 2 pencils behind. All they needed was access to computers at polling locations around the campus and an excellent mouse-clicking technique.

As counties around Nevada scramble to get state-mandated electronic voting systems installed in time for this year’s primary election, the university has leaped ahead of them, holding an election using e-voting. And while the counties are going to Sequoia Voting Systems in Oakland for the hardware, UNR built its own, using a voting system designed by two students.

Devrin Lee, the student government Election Board chairwoman, proposed the idea to switch from hand counting to an electronic voting system more than a year ago.

“In the past, we’ve had to count ballots until 3 in the morning,” Lee said. “The electronic voting lets us count faster and catch up technology-wise.”

The student government approached the campus Information Technologies Department (ITD) for help. Sam Talaie and Ricky Lew, computer science juniors at the time, wrote the computer codes for the system as an assignment in an independent-studies course.

“Whenever you use electronics, there is the potential for problems,” Talaie said. “But this has gone through the IT department thoroughly. To get ahead, people have to take a step forward and not be afraid of technology.” He said writing the program was easy; transforming it into an up-and-running system was more difficult.

“The hardest part was the politics of it—getting the computers on campus, getting the budget approved and getting it approved by the [student] Senate.”

Lew expressed his confidence in their hard work. “It’s been pretty long since we’ve started, but everything’s come along very well,” he said. “We’re proud of what we’ve done. It will save hours of counting.”

Other universities across the country have also made the electronic switch, although many use outside companies that can cost anywhere from $15,000-$35,000 and that frequently ask for student information.

But with UNR’s extended elections budget of $3,500 and a strict student confidentiality code, another option was needed. “Aside from cost being prohibitive, there’s the factor of student info flying back and forth,” said Sandy Rodriguez, director of the student government.

The solution was looking inside the university for resources. UNR already has its own internal server (WebCT), used by professors to issue quizzes and tests online. The student government and the ITD wondered if the system could be used to issue and collect ballots as it would a quiz.

“Why hasn’t anyone thought of this before?” Rodriguez asked.

Rodriguez also mentioned the need for an easier counting system as student enrollment numbers increase. In addition, she wants to create accessibility from any computer connected to the Internet.

At the request of the News & Review, Washoe County Voter Registrar Dan Burk went to UNR to observe the system. Burk, a 25-year veteran of elections administration, says an election official walked him through the process.

“I was impressed by the way they did it,” Burk says, and he was even more taken by the system when he was told it had been designed by two students. But he says there are problems with it. He says there is a short window of opportunity while a student is actually voting for someone at the server to determine the student’s vote and match it to a name.

“They could say, ‘Who’s on the system now?’ and figure out their vote,” he says.

Burk also identified the presence of computer towers at each polling station as a trouble spot.

“They actually had the PC right there at the polling place for every single unit. Now, I’m not saying anything was done wrong. But whenever you have a PC located right with a voting unit you have a path for entry. We never have a PC unit at the polling place. We have no connectivity beyond the polling place…We don’t have key pads, we don’t have hard drives, we don’t have connectivity.”

He said there was probably no security danger, particularly since it was the first use of a new system, but that it would not be appropriate on a larger scale, and improvements should probably be made for future elections.

“I think it was a marvelous product…” Burk says. “They’re not that far off from the kind of system that would have the full guarantee of privacy for the individual.”

Paper ballots were still permitted, and 55 were used. More than 1,100 votes were cast and the e-votes were counted within seconds after the polls closed. The full count was completed in a couple hours.

Dennis Myers contributed to this article.