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Noah Billick is pleased. After nearly a year of collective effort, the president of the Post-Graduate Students' Society of McGill (PGSS) is watching the successful inauguration of an online voting system for graduate students. With this initiative, PGSS will join the Students' Society of McGill University (SSMU) in using a process that is both environmentally friendly and financially efficient. It should also produce a record number of votes in the society's annual election.
"When you save some money, save paper and increase participation, those are pretty good arguments," notes Billick to explain how the project came into being.
The online system means the elimination of a cumbersome and expensive mailing procedure. Because of the society's diffuse constituency, traditional polling stations were impractical, and the PGSS was required to send out individual ballots and information to its thousands of members. Now graduate students will be able to participate in elections and referenda through an easy series of mouse-clicks. Word of the online system is being spread through emails that include a hyperlink and by wide promotion of the voting site's URL.
Despite the obvious advantages of online voting, introducing it was anything but easy. Before the new system could be made available to its members, PGSS had to overcome complex logistical obstacles and an institutional inertia that had stymied previous executives. Success came after Billick and Chief Returning Officer Rabi Tahir ensured that the society had the support of both PGSS council and key administrators on campus. According to Billick, a linchpin in the process was McGill's CIO and Associate Provost, Anthony Masi.
"Dr. Masi was great. He was really eager and supportive, but at the same time he made us do our homework."
At Thomson House, the society's services coordinator, Johanne O'Malley, views online voting as more than just a coup for the environment and the society's coffers. For her, the new process ensures that an expanding organization remains representative to its members.
"The society's been on a growth spurt," says O'Malley. "Good participation rates are a priority for us. It's important for our legitimacy."
While popular, online voting has also raised new questions regarding security and privacy, to which the society has been adroit in responding. These concerns were a top priority in designing the system, and PGSS has taken care to explain security features to its members in plain-English terms.
Initial responses to the new system have so far been encouraging. Kristin Powers, a chemistry student, offered a concise appraisal, saying, "I'm all for online voting. It will just make everything so much easier."