Brock students to analyze historic digital election

Next week, Brock University students will be on the front lines of a landmark election, the first entirely digital vote with end-to-end verifiability held by a Canadian municipality.

The mock vote, which will focus on pizza, is non-binding and non-political — but that doesn’t make it any less significant in the rapidly changing digital-voting landscape. The project is part of Nicole Goodman’s Canadian Politics in the Digital Age course.

“Our course is all about the impact of digital technology on politics in Canada, and for the Service Learning assignment, students are examining how technology is changing elections, notably through online voting,” says Goodman, an Associate Professor in Brock’s Department of Political Science who holds a Chancellor’s Chair for Research Excellence for her work in this area. “In the last municipal election in 2018, four companies had market share among municipalities, but now at least 14 are bidding on contracts in the run-up to the 2022 election. The nature of the market is changing significantly, largely in response to COVID-19 and the pressures that it has put on governments to offer more accessible voting.”

To create a unique educational experience for her students, Goodman has joined forces with Woolwich Township and Neuvote to host and analyze a mock election.

Between Tuesday, Oct. 12 and Friday, Oct. 15, residents of Woolwich will use Neuvote’s voting platform with end-to-end verifiability, which allows individual users to confirm that their votes were correctly received, to participate in the mock election.

Brock students will also take part in voting and then assess the entire process from the standpoint of both policy analysts and private consultants, zeroing in on one key issue and preparing a report with their findings and actionable recommendations for both public- and private-sector partners.

Working in groups, the students will examine the election’s accessibility, security and privacy, turnout and convenience, election evaluation and user experience.

“I’m excited to partner with Brock University in this mock election and experiential learning project,” says Jeff Smith, Clerk for Woolwich Township. “We are reviewing ways to provide an exceptional election experience for our voters, and we welcome the feedback and analysis provided by students for the 2022 municipal and school board elections.”

Any voters from Woolwich Township and beyond who would like to participate in the mock election are encouraged to check the Woolwich Township website for more information.

Matthew Heuman, CEO at Neuvote, says he is eager to see how regular voters understand and respond to using the end-to-end verifiable technology.

“To verify that your vote was recorded as cast and then counted as recorded is critically important, and the process is quite simple,” says Heuman. “The voters themselves then have the confidence to know — because they’ve checked — that their vote truly was counted exactly as they cast it. What we hope to gain through this project is feedback on how to make that process as simple as possible for voters, in order to help embed that verification step into habit.”

To prepare for the mock election, the class of fourth-year and master’s students have had visits from both partners to demonstrate the technology and discuss each organization’s priorities, as well as from multiple experts, including a computer science professor sharing insight on security and authentication, a municipal clerk from Ajax with experience in digital voting and speakers from Brock’s James A. Gibson Library.

Students also received training in writing policy reports, one of the many hard skills they will gain because of this experiential project.

Goodman — who has worked in many levels of government, international consulting and the private sector, in addition to her work in academia — knows what skills employers in the field are looking for and built this experience to maximize learning and training opportunities.

“I created this project to better equip students for the job market, to give them the skills they need to be able to go out and land a job,” says Goodman. “Building strong critical thinking, learning how to write analytically and developing presentation style are all essential skills we teach at the University traditionally, but it’s also really important to learn other practical skills.”

Last year, as a student in Goodman’s Canadian Politics in the Digital Age class, Political Science major Noah Nickel participated in a class-wide experiential education project with Neuvote to create Canada’s first-ever remote election using end-to-end verifiable technology at Brock. He says the opportunity came as an unexpected surprise as part of the course.

“I had never had such an experiential assignment in any of my classes up to that point, so I really appreciated having the chance to develop some practical, workplace skills in an academic setting,” says Nickel. “I think that all of us in that class were better off for having had the opportunity.”

Cara Krezek, Director of Co-op, Career & Experiential Education at Brock, calls the current project an excellent example of how quality experiential learning benefits students by building skills and knowledge and also impacts industry in meaningful ways.

“Experiential learning supports advanced skill building as students are engaged in cutting-edge technology that provides them with the know-how that today’s employers are looking for,” says Krezek. “This is precisely the type of experiences that Brock has become known for by our industry partners.”

Goodman says her top priority is to help students hit the ground running when they graduate.

“At the end of the day, I want to empower my students to be able to leave the course and better understand, interpret and explain the ways in which technology is affecting our state, and also to empower them with the skills and knowledge to be able to go out there and pursue whatever path they would like,” says Goodman. “If I’ve done that, then I’m a happy professor.”

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