The University of Geneva voted online with POLYAS

The University of Geneva is spread all over the city – and that also applies to its polling stations. Online voting with POLYAS provided a remedy, which paid off even more because of the pandemic. Lionel Cau, an information systems and organizational consultant at the University of Geneva, talks in the interview about how POLYAS overcame various hurdles to make the election available.

Mr. Cau, why did the University of Geneva decide to use online voting?

There are two main reasons: The first is that the participation rate in the analog election was very low. This is because we have a unique campus that is divided into many sites scattered throughout the canton. And that means it’s quite difficult for many eligible voters to vote because we must open certain buildings, but we can’t open all of them because it takes time and money. We wanted to address that problem by allowing people to vote wherever they are.

And the second one, of course, is the specificity of the pandemic, because people are out of the office, and many students spend little time in our buildings. But we wanted to enable them to vote online as well.

But the University of Geneva made the decision to vote online before the pandemic started?

Yes, we did.

How many people participated in the online election?

We had 22,000 participants in the election. There were about 17,000 students and 5,000 employees.

What was the situation before online voting was possible at the University of Geneva? Were the polling stations spread all over the campus?

No, we only had four polling places open, all four main buildings. Each group of eligible voters had their building. To vote was very complex. That’s why we decided to go the online voting route.

What was the legal basis for your online voting?

There were many regulations that have evolved over the decades – the University of Geneva is more than 400 years old. It is one of the oldest in Europe. It was a mix of regulations specific to the university, the Canton of Geneva, and the Swiss federal government. We had a unique opportunity to work with the Canton of Geneva, which is a leader in Switzerland when it comes to online validation. The canton developed its own online voting solution a few years ago, but for financial reasons it was not used ultimately. Nevertheless, the canton has a lot of experience regarding this issue. When we decided to use digital voting, they were ready from their side to help us and make sure that all the regulations would be followed. All we had to do was take the legal information and apply it to our environment.

Do you know what the situation is in other states in Switzerland? Is online voting allowed for universities?

As far as I know, so far there are only a few universities in Switzerland that use an online system for their election. But I guess our example could serve as a door opener, because there is a great need for it at other universities as well.

Can you assess whether the workload has become smaller because of the online election?

I would like to say that the implementation meant a bit more work on our side in the first year, but I see it as an investment for the next years. We are very confident that next year’s online election setup will go smoothly and will take just as much or less work than before.

In your opinion: What is the advantage of online voting?

For democracy, it is useful to be able to vote at any time with your PC or cell phone. And with our very specific situation, where the polling stations are spread around the campus, online voting was particularly beneficial for us.

How did the collaboration with POLYAS work? What solutions were discussed to address your concerns?

Our election system has a long history behind it, with a mix of proportional and majority representations. Currently, POLYAS’ solution is not supporting proportional elections, but they adapted their system to our needs so that we could calculate the results ourselves. We conducted two proofs of concepts. The first test was purely technical, making sure that all features were matching our needs and the second one was conducted with rectorate representatives in order to be sure that the elections information was correctly entered and displayed to the end users. We really appreciated the help of POLYAS to work with us on this for quite a long period of time.

Have you received any feedback from eligible voters about voting?

At the beginning, we were a bit skeptical when we saw that all the ballots would be on one page (you had to scroll down to see all the ballots). However, POLYAS explained to us that this way would be the easiest for eligible voters, based on experience. In the end, it turned out to be a good solution. Our eligible voters did not need any assistance in finding the ballots. The feedback was very good. Voter turnout among university employees tripled. Because of the pandemic, our candidates did not all have the time to make plans, put together a slate of candidates, and work out a proper campaign. We hope that participation will be even higher after the pandemic is over.

So, the University of Geneva would like to vote online again?

Yes, there’s no doubt about it.

And would you also recommend other Swiss universities to vote online?

Yes, because of all the reasons I gave you. We have already recommended POLYAS another school in Geneva that was in a hurry to vote online. It gives us confidence that your company was able to find a solution for this school as well. I can say that I have strong confidence that other universities could do the same.

The Corona pandemic has driven digitization worldwide. Read more about it here!