Students at the University of Florida have sued their administration and their student government after being told that online voting for student elections is unconstitutional.
Earlier this year, the UF student organization Students for Online Voting petitioned the student government supreme court to amend the spring ballot and let the student body decide if future student government elections should be conducted online - a procedure UCF has used for eight years.
The court denied the petition and stated that online voting is unconstitutional under both federal and state law. The UF supreme court published its opinion against the online voting petition in February.
"Our concern is not the technical security the voting system provides against potential hackers," the opinion reads. "Our concern is upholding and protecting the most fundamental tenants of a free society: that every person has one vote; that vote is cast in complete privacy and that the integrity of the election can be monitored by both the public and the government."
The supreme court stated its concern with the possibility of voter coercion if voting becomes as easily accessible as logging into the university's network. The court also cited the threat of increased double voting as a reason for unconstitutionality.
"The Online Voting amendment has the effect of taking away the right to a secret ballot," it said, "because it inhibits the supervisor of elections from being able to verify that voters participating in elections are actually the persons whose Gatorlink username and password were used to access the system."
Last week, the president of Students for Online Voting, Tommy Jardon, and Executive Director Sam Miorelli filed the lawsuit in Alachua County 8th Circuit Court, saying they were unhappy with the way UF's administration handled the situation and that the action was their only option.
The university has not been served yet. Steve Orlando of the UF news bureau said the administration could not comment on pending litigation.
"The administration turned a blind eye," Jardon said, "and so the last recourse we had, the one that all of us had contemplated but sincerely hoped it would never come to, was filing suit."
The lawsuit asks that the UF supreme court be mandated to approve online voting for the spring ballot.
Before filing the suit, Miorelli contacted the vice president of student affairs, Patricia Telles-Irvin, to make her aware of the petition and to seek council. Telles-Irvin responded in a letter sent to Miorelli after the supreme court's decision.
She stated in the letter, "There has clearly been a loud cry over the past few years from the student body regarding online voting. ... As the vice president of student affairs I cannot allow these voices, which you represent, to go unheard. To this end I will be forming an independent committee to review the subject of online voting."
But a committee was not what Jardon and Miorelli wanted. Jardon said students have been asking for online voting since 2001 and Telles-Irvin had the power to overrule the supreme court's decision.
"If they [the administration] really chose to exercise that power, they could have," Jardon said.
He said this is the fourth committee that has been established to review online voting and he fears that it will be recommended back to student government and no progress will be made.
"When everything else fails," Jardon said, "the fail-safe for students [is] amending the constitution directly. It's a fact of life. It's a fact about American democracy."
UF's student body president, Ryan Moseley, had no comment on the lawsuit.
Jardon said he and Miorelli did everything required to amnd the constitution. They created a petition outlining the guidelines for voting if the student body constitution is amended so that online voting becomes the only method of voting in all future student government elections. If this happens, voters must vote by logging into their Gatorlink account, on a computer with a secure and encrypted connection where the voter identity is secret and untraceable. A date for the vote has yet to be set.
They also want at least one voting booth available on campus for students wishing to vote in private, as well as provisional paper ballots made available on a case-by-case basis for any voter with a disability, special need or any other extenuating circumstance.
More than 5,600 students signed the petition, which is more than 11 percent of the 50,576 students enrolled at the beginning of the 2007-2008 school year. UF's constitution requires signatures from 10 percent of the student body for a petition to be certified for a ballot.
Mark McShera, UF College Democrats' editorial chairman, said that no organization has ever attempted to collect that many signatures before. He said he believes that an online voting system would increase voter turnout and double the number of the 8,000 to 9,000 UF students who participate in student government elections each semester.
UCF has seen large numbers of voters for their online student government elections. Cherayne Metz, the Student Government Association's supervisor of elections, said that UCF reached its highest number with 25 percent of the student body participating in online voting this year.
McShera said that every campus that has implemented online voting has increased student involvement in the election process.
Jardon said that the student government system at UF is corrupt, and by increasing voter turnout through online voting, he said he hopes to buffer the influence that the Greek community seems to have on elections.
"The only way to break that vice grip is by increasing voter turnout," Jardon said.
UCF's chief justice, Patrick Hayden, said he has never witnessed any competition among Greeks during UCF's elections. He said he could find no reason why online voting should be deemed unconstitutional.
UCF's student body president, Brandie Hollinger, said she couldn't see a problem with online voting either.
"It's our responsibility," Hollinger said. "If we want people to vote, we have to make it as easy and seamless as possible."
© 2008 Central Florida Future via U-WIRE