Elections for both the University and the Student Government will take place for the first time online

For the first time ever, students and registered doctoral candidates at the University of Freiburg can vote online for candidates in the University elections and the simultaneously run elections for the student government. They can vote via the central election portal from December 8-14, 2020. In a conversation with Kristin Schwarz, Tobias Haas, Head of the University elections and member of the Office for Committees and Appointments at the University of Freiburg, explains why the procedure are taking place online and exactly how it works.

Log on, click, wait: This year, voters will be able to access their electronic ballots via the central election portal of the University of Freiburg. Picture: Jane/ Adobe Stock

Mr. Haas, for the first time ever, elections for both the University and the Student Government will take place online at the beginning of December. How come?

Tobias Haas: Internally, we have been thinking for some time about how we can implement elections online. The idea then quickly gained weight in the ongoing corona pandemic. After we had to postpone the elections planned for summer 2020 due to the pandemic, the Rectorate and Senate decided unanimously in May to hold the University elections in electronic form in the late year. This left us six months to prepare the online procedure in a way that was organizationally, technically and legally secure. During this time, for example, we adapted our election regulations, consulted our data protection officer, exchanged information with colleagues from other universities and purchased a suitable software solution.

How will the online election work?

Students and enrolled doctoral candidates can log on to the voting portal with the login data of their University account within the specified period. Each person then receives an individual link to the electronic ballot, where they can cast their votes with a click. This process can also be aborted and restarted, for example, to change entries. However, once the ballots have been submitted, neither corrections nor renewed participation is possible. With the help of the software, we then evaluate the anonymously saved ballots on December 14 after the closing date for voting. Afterwards, the Election Committee for the University Elections and the Commission on Elections, Arbitration and Statutes for the elections of the Student Government will determine the results. They are to be officially announced before the Christmas break so that the committees can start the new year with new appointments.

This makes Freiburg one of the first universities in Baden-Württemberg to allow electronic voting. What advantages does this have for those entitled to vote – apart from health precautions?

From discussions with representatives of other universities and colleges, we know that online elections do not always, but often have a positive effect on voter turnout because they make it easier to vote. In order to benefit from this effect in the best possible way, we therefore have kept access barriers low. Voters have six days to participate, they only need an Internet connection and do not have to be on site at a specific time. In this way we want to motivate as many members of the University as possible to exercise their right to vote.

Students and doctoral candidates influence who brings their topics to the University committees and ultimately decides on them. A high voter turnout can also strengthen their own positions and those of their representatives, explains Tobias Haas. Picture: Sandra Meyndt

Does the digital format also make the work of all participants easier?

Setting up and holding all this up for the first time costs us a lot of time on the front end. However, once the processes are up and running, we expect the effort for all parties involved to decrease. Because unlike face-to-face elections, we don’t have to circulate ballot boxes or print and distribute ballot papers with online voting. Furthermore, we do not have to organize and supervise polling stations, send out postal voting documents, train election workers or count ballots by hand until late into the night.

Why should students and doctoral candidates participate in the elections?

As a university, we enjoy the privilege of academic self-government to a certain extent – and we should make use of it. Students and enrolled doctoral candidates appoint their representatives in the Senate and faculty councils in the University elections. In this way, they influence who brings their topics to the University committees and ultimately decides on them. It is therefore a matter of self-determination. But it’s also about legitimacy. After all, a high voter turnout strengthens the positions of those who are involved in academic and student self-government and those for whom they speak.