By: Diane Stirling
(315) 443-8975

They built it.

In some 15 to 20 hours of programming time over a period of five days, with another day for dry testing, two senior Information Management and Technology students designed a new, customized software program that accurately, reliably, and visibly calculated votes cast in the candidate campaigns for the fall School of Information Studies (iSchool) course, “Social Media and the 2012 Election.”

Chris Becker and Andrew Bauer built the software program from scratch. Their inspiration was Twindex, and the program was written in PHP with MySQL as the database. The software was a modification of a text-to-vote system Bauer had developed a few weeks prior for ElectionClass use. The customized voting system was located in NEXIS, the iSchool’s New Explorations in information Science data center. It included: 

  • A visual, touchscreen display of the class’s six presidential and vice presidential candidate choices that used candidates’ Twitter photos for the ballot 
  • Another touchscreen display asking voters to answer five polling questions
  •  A web application that allowed a voter’s finger, when placed on the screen, to act like the click of a mouse
  • Data tracking mechanisms so that every vote ( touch of the screen) was tracked and counted
  •  A display of the candidate vote and poll questions, worked up on two screens inside a curtained voting booth
  • A second exhibit, consisting of two more screens outside the voting booth, which showed real-time, continual updates of voter responses to the poll questions, pie-chart style.

For the student developers, the project was simple and straightforward, but also a lot of fun and a great learning experience. Their pairing proved the perfect yin/yang combination for the task at hand, too. Bauer did most of the back-end work, while Becker did the design elements and the front end of the system. 

According to Becker, “It all came together really quickly; I was pretty surprised at how quickly. It was definitely not as hard as I expected it to be.” He attributed that to “mostly because of Andrew’s and my experience with these kinds of things. If I didn’t know the answer, he did, and vice versa.” Bauer agreed, saying that he “had a ton of fun” on the project. “I love creating software that helps make things better; in this case, the alternative would have been paper ballots.”  

The biggest challenge in developing the touch-voting system, according to Bauer, “was making sure that it was 100% reliable.” He said there were a number of technologies put to use behind-the-scenes to make sure everything ran smoothly, and some of them were being learned on-the-spot. Not only did the software serve the mechanical and technical needs of the voting process; it also provided a queuing system. With lines of up to 20 people at times during the class election process, and more than 500 votes cast through the system, the software also signaled when one voter hadcompleted the process and the next could enter the booth. Still, the entire process of candidate voting and five poll questions was completed usually in under a minute for each voter, Bauer said.

The system wasn’t just about functionality; it also required thinking about issues surrounding the voting process, Becker added. “We had to think about fraud and problem-solve with ways to make the election as fair as possible.” Consequently, a fraud prevention system was incorporated that required a University ID check-in and validation for each voter as they entered the booth, to avoid duplicate voting. 

The true beta test came on Election Day.

All over America, voters experienced various election-process glitches, but at the iSchool, the newly-created electronic voting system went smoothly the entire day and evening. (There were a few moments of downtime once, but that was due to issues other than the software, Becker said.) The system successfully responded to the more than 500 class votes cast and tallied on Election Night, a level of awareness well beyond the 100-plus students in the class.  

That high degree of student turnout was surprising, the developers agreed. “It’s one thing to see the president’s name when you go into a voting booth, but another to know you’re going to vote for someone you personally know and have met. None of us has actually met Obama, but it’s a little cooler to say that I’m voting for my friend that I’ve known since freshman year. It was definitely a personalized situation, and it led to a great experience throughout the whole thing,” Becker suggested. “People were really excited seeing their friends on the screen and how they got to click their name.”

Bauer concurred. “The statistics themselves were incredible, too. As of 5 p.m. on Election Day, our polling station had received more votes than the actual polling location in Bird Library.  When our polls closed at 7 p.m., we had over 500 votes and over 2,500 exit poll responses recorded,” Bauer added. 

Based on user response, “the results were beyond incredible,” Bauer noted. Becker added that ElectionClass voters liked the ease and style of electronic voting. “A lot of people asked about it, were saying how cool it was, and were commenting that this is better technology than the real voting system.”  Bauer heard similar praise, with users saying “that our system was a huge improvement over any other voting system they've used.”   

A chart of the class hour-by-hour polling is at: