Fewer students at the digital ballot box

From digital campaigning to voting software vulnerable to fraud, it is a strange election year for participation in universities. But, the turnout is not as low as feared.

(Foto: mohamed Hassan / Pixabay)

The elections for the participation bodies are very different this year due to the coronavirus crisis. All of a sudden, canvassing for votes on a busy campus was impossible.

As a result, the turnout for the student council elections fell at most universities. The only exception is Eindhoven University of Technology, where the turnout of 31.6 per cent this year was not only the highest, but also equalled that of last year. But that is not odd, the elections took place in December.

In the crisis period, Tilburg remained the leader, but the turnout fell considerably from 41.8 to 29.8 per cent. Delft University of Technology followed (from 35.4 to 27.8 per cent) and then Radboud University Nijmegen (from 37.2 to 26.6 per cent).

The question is to what extent this can be attributed to the coronavirus crisis? Despite all the calls for participation and democratisation, the average turnout for elections to participation bodies at universities has been falling for the past few years. Sometimes the elections are even cancelled due to a lack of candidates. That happened last year in Rotterdam and this year at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

“If there are even more voters missing this time, it is probably the group that you normally meet physically on campus,” says Daan Bos, board member of the Foundation National Consultation of Fractions (LOF). “That’s why, this year, there was a lot of campaigning via WhatsApp by students, where you still have a number of group chats from workgroups you were taking.”

Bos also noticed a large number of advertisements for participation bodies on Facebook and Instagram. “You usually hand out flyers or fruit to students on campus as part of your publicity campaign. That wasn’t possible this time, so there was massive investment in social media advertisements.”

More creative
At the universities of applied sciences, this year’s turnout remained unchanged at around nine per cent, according to the Student Consultation on Participation (SOM), which supports students in participation bodies of universities of applied sciences. Board member Karl van der Linde feels that the students did more campaigning than in previous years. “They had to be more creative to reach their supporters. We have seen lots of nice videos and even whole campaign meetings via Zoom.”

On the whole, the board members of LOF and SOM are not entirely dissatisfied.“This year, we were really holding our breath with regards to participation,” says Bos. “In that respect, we are actually pleasantly surprised.”

SOM observed that the number of staff members at universities of applied sciences that cast their vote fell slightly from 63 to 59 per cent. In addition, elections of staff members are far from being annual at every institution. Staff members are elected for two years at many institutions. Sometimes elections are even cancelled because there are too few candidates. That was the case this year at University of Twente, for example.

As if the election season was not exceptional enough, earlier this month national student organisation De Vrije Student sounded the alarm bell due to a potential vulnerability in the WebElect voting application used by several institutions. The participation body based in Groningen warned that by writing their own programme, unauthorised persons could simply steal students’ login details and use them to vote.

The Amsterdam student magazine Folia took on the challenge. The editorial staff were indeed able to use a script to log into more than 100 student accounts, including at University of Amsterdam, University of Groningen and The Hague University of Applied Sciences.

It is not clear if fraud of this nature was perpetrated during the participation elections. To be certain, University of Amsterdam has started an investigation and has delayed the announcement of the election results. The HU University of Applied Sciences Utrecht has also called for an investigation by WebElect. 

HOP, Evelien Flink
Translation: Taalcentrum-VU

HOP Hoger Onderwijs Persbureau

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