Voting Irregularities Cast Shadow on 2020 Eisner Awards

Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me Art - Publicity - H 2019
Rosemary Valero-O'Connell/First Second Books
The personal information of some voters was revealed when they logged in to vote for the Oscars of the comic book industry, which will be announced Friday.

What organizers described as "an anomaly" that closed online voting for the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards early in June was actually an error that cross-linked certain accounts and allowed voters not only to see personal information listed in the linked account but to change the other person's vote.

Voting at the site eisnervote.com was suspended without notice June 18, with Comic-Con International issuing a statement reading, "We were alerted to an anomaly with the site hosting the Eisners voting. We have closed voting and are investigating the situation. We will make an announcement as we have additional information. We're sorry for the inconvenience to voters." Six days later, voting was reopened via the same portal, with all votes cast prior being disregarded and voters asked to resubmit their choices.

On the same day that voting reopened, comics creator Leanna Cruz tweeted that the reason voting had been suspended was that personal data from voters had been inadvertently revealed, as discovered by the MG-BIPOC in Comics Discord channel, an online community to which she belongs. 

Cruz elaborated in an email with The Hollywood Reporter:

"On Wednesday, June 17, a member of the [MG-BIPOC in Comics Discord channel], Joamette Gil, reminded us to vote for the Eisners. When some of us went to the website, we realized that after we logged in, the website would greet us by name — except the name it greeted us with wasn't our own. I was not the first one to discover this — I was just the one who volunteered to email [Eisners organizer] Jackie Estrada and the website manager, Rick Gerlach, about it," Cruz stated. "Together, the members of the discord realized that after logging in, when we refreshed, we could see someone else's information — both their 'profile information' (including full name and address) and the votes they had made. Some members tried to vote without realizing they were now under someone else's name, and said that they were able to change that person's votes."    

Gerlach, according to Cruz, responded by saying that "a few accounts were cross linked," an explanation he had also provided on June 15 to librarian Eric Carpenter, when Carpenter had noticed the same problem, according to a screenshot Carpenter posted on social media. 

Cruz and Carpenter were not the only ones to raise the issue with Comic-Con International, as it turned out; writer J.A. Micheline had discovered the problem days earlier, contacting Rick Gerlach on June 8, also receiving the "accounts were cross linked" response, as per emails reviewed by THR

Returning to the June 17 correspondence, Cruz told THR that Gerlach "claimed shortly thereafter [his initial response] that the issue was resolved, and directed me to create a new account (and asked for the emails of everyone else experiencing the issue — which I didn't provide). I resisted, telling him that ‘[I don't] want to re-register on the off chance that other people will be able to see my address, phone number, and email upon refreshing the website, as I was able to see theirs.’"

Later that day, Cruz did indeed register a new account, only to discover that the problem had not been fixed. "Members of the Discord channel told me that they could see my personal information," Cruz explained. Further emails to Gerlach and Estrada went unanswered, and a day later, the website was closed.   

Each of the sources THR spoke to expressed that any personal information they had shared with the organizers of the Eisner Awards had been shared in the belief that it was private and would not be seen by others. None questioned could remember signing a Terms and Conditions agreement when registering to vote, which might have allowed for the sharing of personal information; indeed, some specifically said that there was definitively no such agreement. A query to organizers about the existence and wording of any such agreement went unanswered.

When voting reopened June 24, some voters received an email from organizers asking them to resubmit their votes. That email read, in part, "While our examination of the records leads us to believe the problem is small and we have no direct evidence that any votes have been altered, out of an abundance of caution and care we have decided to re-run the vote with a current and secure voting platform. Only the eligible comics industry professionals who cast votes on the original platform are being sent this invitation to recast their ballot."

Eisner Award winner Emil Ferris shared a screenshot of the email via Twitter.

Not every professional received the email, however. "I didn't receive an email invitation to vote again, and had to specifically email Jackie to ask for the ability to do so," Cruz wrote. Multiple other professionals confirmed to THR that they also hadn't received an invitation to vote a second time — although one did reveal that they had been invited to vote in the second round of voting, despite not having cast a vote in the original platform, thereby contradicting part of the organizers' email.

In response to being asked specific questions by THR about the nature of the voting anomaly potentially raised, a spokesperson for Comic-Con International wrote in email, "Please refer to our statement on our website for our latest updates on the Eisner voting." The email linked a statement that reads, "As you may be aware, it was brought to our attention that some voters had issues with the original Eisner Awards voting website. Our investigation into the matter discovered an error that, in certain specific situations, allowed one user to see the profile of a different user as well as access to the votes of the other user. Our examination of the records leads us to believe the problem was limited in nature and have no evidence that any original votes were compromised or altered. However, out of an abundance of caution, the decision was made to redo the vote with a new and secure voting platform. It appears this was not a malicious attempt but an error in the platform itself. A comparison of the original results and those of the revote indicates no difference in the results."

Although Comic-Con International notes the first and second rounds of voting were identical, at least one voter has publicly admitted to changing their mind between voting a second time, with others saying that they couldn’t remember their original choices, suggesting there should be some level of discrepancy between rounds of voting, despite the statement claiming "no difference."    

Comic-Con International's statement concludes, "We are committed to ensuring the voting process is as safe and secure as possible and are exploring the use of a new and secure voting platform for 2021. We hope you will join us for Comic-Con@Home on Friday, July 24, to watch the new online version of the Eisner Awards."

(Disclosure: This reporter was part of the selections panel for the 2018 Eisner Awards.)