Could online elections save student politics?

While the proposal of online voting may have stirred concerns around security at a federal level, its use on campuses could improve the health of student politics as a whole, writes Nick Bonyhady

During the federal election campaign, Bill Shorten and Malcolm Turnbull supported online voting. The disaster that was this year’s census – overloaded, ill-secured and dubiously private – would appear to have put paid to that idea. Nonetheless, several campuses around the country are using online voting over the next couple of months to select some of their most important student representatives.

Unlike at the national level, there are good reasons to believe that online voting in student elections is not a bad idea. In fact, it may produce more democratic and inclusive outcomes than the current system of paper ballots. Whether there is any political will to institute such changes is a different matter.

The Australian National University Student Association (ANUSA) is undertaking this year’s most prominent experiment with online voting. For the first time, all ANUSA (equivalent to the SRC at Sydney, but also incorporating the clubs and society functions of a student union) positions will be elected online. Given the central role that ANUSA plays on campus, members of the two broadly left-wing student tickets contesting this year’s poll are acutely aware of the potential ups and downs of online voting for their campaigns.

James Connolly, the presidential candidate for Amplify and current ANUSA Education Officer, told Honi that “candidates would need to engage far more on an experience and policy level” online than in person. To some extent, he is right.

In spite of its dubious name, ANU Stalkerspace, a kind of potpourri of USYD Rants and Love Letters, has turned into a reasonable place for stupol discussion. Karan Dhamija, running against Connolly for the presidency with the Connect ticket, said that there has been “a lot of interaction with actual policies that you don’t see on other campuses”. The tickets’ policies on issues as diverse as the future of the ANU School of Music and class timetabling have been subject to serious analysis online, which bears out Dhamija’s contention.

As a corollary, unrealistic promises like ‘bigger schnitzels’ or ‘more parties’ don’t appear in the major tickets’ policy platforms at the ANU. These policies have long been a feature of Sydney campaigns as a result of the structure of offline campaigns. In a typical election, more votes are won between City Road and Fisher Library than any other path on campus. In the handful of minutes it takes to walk from one to the other, campaigners only have time to deliver simplistic pitches. With the longer time frame permitted by online voting, wonkish but important priorities like “OrgSync and Online Platforms” and “Timeliness and Organisation” dominate.

Lest this sound too positive, ANU student politics still appears to be an echo chamber. Certainly, the same set of people mostly dominate the Stalkerspace threads. Yet online voting seems to have offered a modest improvement. Should a student wander into Stalkerspace looking for a lost meme stash (spicy or not), they may end up learning something about the people who want to represent them.

Dhamija also suggested that the change to online voting would shift some power from political factions to “people who are big on campus”. In the current paradigm, factions – groupings of students typified by Labor left and right – wield huge power in student politics through preference deals, mass campaigners and institutional training.

Factions will lose some power at the ANU because the regulations ban campaigners from approaching students transiting through the heart of campus. So, factions’ ability to mobilise lots of physical campaigners will be less useful.

However, the exclusion of factional campaigners is not inherent to online elections. For example, physical campaigning is permitted across campus in Sydney University Senate campaigns. Factions can also still wield significant influence online. In the 2014 Senate election, then incumbent undergraduate Senate fellow Pat Massarani secured fairly broad support from campus groups. However, the people who most consistently liked his Facebook posts were from Labor right – a faction with whom Massarani identified during his stupol career.

Given social media prioritises posts with more interaction, factional directives to like and comment on posts are a useful promotional tool. Similarly, Honi reported at the time that Dalton Fogarty, who is still serving as the undergraduate Senate fellow, was promoted by Sydney University Sport and Fitness, arguably leading to his victory over Massarani. He won by almost 1,000 votes. Clearly factions, and even non-student institutions, can remain an important part of online elections.

Perhaps the difference between online and offline campaigns then, is that online elections favour those who have surface popularity with many people rather than deep popularity with a few. Obviously both forms of popularity are useful but the level of effort required for physical campaigning – especially facing constant rejections from voters – is far higher than that required to post a Facebook status. Consequently, factions’ ability to mobilise campaigners by promising future positions of power is less valuable compared to popular students with big friendship circles that they can ask for an online promo.

So for factional politics, online voting is more a marginal handicap than a disqualification, even with the restrictive regulations that ANUSA has implemented. Without them, online voting could have the opposite impact. While it is difficult to envisage athletes in SUSF blazers spruiking for a senate candidate, a mass email attracts less attention and with a simple link to the voting platform, can be just as effective.

While both Connolly and Dhamija see the diminution of factional power as a benefit of online voting, Simon Hill, who until his recent graduation was the postgraduate Senate fellow, is more sanguine about their influence. Hill notes that people who rise to the top of factions “tend to have some merit” as people who are “persistent and determined” to see change happen. Hill himself acknowledged that he won some votes through his involvement in the Evangelical Union as an undergraduate, but he attributes his victory primarily to physical campaigning. If Hill’s estimate that he spoke to roughly 2,100 people is accurate, there is little reason to disbelieve him. Nonetheless, Hill says that there should be a “mid-point” between the intense campaigning prevalent in offline elections and the potentially more measured tactics of online elections.

The discussion about online voting should not end with its effect on student politicians. In the upcoming SRC elections, polling booths will only be open at the Conservatorium of Music and College of Arts (SCA) satellite campuses for two hours on one day of voting. By contrast, online voting, which makes voters’ locations irrelevant, could enable hundreds more students to vote in student elections. While Connolly and Dhamija were uncertain about how many more votes would be cast in this election, both were confident that online voting would increase participation.

Of course, it is not difficult to make a large scale IT project sound good on paper. Deploying it in the real world is another matter entirely as the grossly over budget and notably delayed National Broadband Network attests.

At the ANU, the online election does not appear to be going smoothly. As Woroni, the ANU student newspaper reported, the election has been delayed by a week due to contractual issues with the software vendor which the ANUSA is reliant on to conduct the election. It is for that reason that critics oppose online elections at a federal level. Yet, in spite of the delay, ANUSA may well have an entirely new executive in a few weeks, all elected online. Even if does not, the campaign that has occurred so far shows the potential of online voting. If that happens, the SRC and Union should take a serious look at adopting the same voting method here.