APS News

APS Units Have Option of Holding Electronic Elections

The APS Executive Board approved a motion at its April meeting authorizing APS units to conduct electronic elections, provided that unit members are assured of the opportunity to vote whether or not they have Web access, and that procedures are in place to prevent members from inadvertently voting more than once. The decision was based on a report from the APS Forum on Physics and Society (FPS). FPS requested permission last November to conduct an experiment for one election with a combined paper and Web page ballot, which took place between December 1996 and early March 1997. The experiment was very successful. Voter turnout rose to 18 percent, compared with the 5 to 8 percent in recent years, and the procedure did not prove to be excessively time-consuming.

The turnout for annual APS elections within the units is generally low, usually below 20 percent of the eligible membership, according to Barrett Ripin, APS Associate Executive Officer. Marc Sher of William & Mary College, a member of the FPS Executive Committee initiated the electronic election effort. He believes a significant factor in the low member participation is the large number of steps it takes in order to vote. "One must get the ballot, find the candidate statements, read them, vote, find an envelope, and address, stamp and mail it," he said. "Allowing voting via the Web reduces the number of needed steps, thus improving participation." An online ballot enables voters to make their choices with a few clicks of the mouse, with candidate statements and biographies linked to their names on the ballot. The Texas Section of the APS tried a different approach to electronic balloting. In their election last fall, they sent email ballots to members with email addresses on file and paper ballots to all others. Their ballot return rate also approximately doubled from traditional paper-only elections.

Of course, issues about security and anonymity when voting electronically were of paramount concern. To that end, Sher designed a system in which two files are made when processing a vote. One contains the name and email address of the voter, as well as the machine IP number they voted from and time of vote, and assigns a voter number. The other file contains only the voter number and which votes were cast. Because one can't determine for whom any individual voted without looking at both files, Sher believes it is at least as anonymous as the current paper system. The system also automatically checks for duplicate votes. Requiring an APS membership number would further improve security, but since many APS members don't know what their number is, this would defeat much of the purpose of electronic elections, according to Sher.

Units interested in holding electronic elections may contact APS Executive Officer Judy Franz for guidance. Sher has software available for this purpose.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin