Oscar's E-Voting Problems Worse Than Feared (Analysis)

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It looks like online Oscar voting is hitting a few snags, which some Academy members worry might depress voting participation to its lowest level in years. 

Voting to determine the next set of Oscar nominees began Dec. 17 and will extend through Jan. 3. On Dec. 26, I reached out to a wide cross-section of the Academy to see if they tried to vote online (an Academy spokesperson tells me that "a great majority" of members have registered to do so) and, if so, to characterize their experience. Roughly half of the members reached said they experienced problems navigating the site; more than one described it as a "disaster." They also worried that hackers could compromise the Oscar vote.

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On Dec. 26, I also spoke with an Academy spokesperson who told me most complaints about e-voting have stemmed from members “forgetting or misusing passwords.”

Members who signed up for e-voting after paying their dues in October received a voter identification number (or VIN) in the mail this month. They then had to create a voting password, distinct from their member password, that met very specific criteria: It must be no shorter than eight characters and no longer than 16; it must include at least one alpha and one numeric character; and it must include one special character, such as !, @, # or $. When they use it to try to log in to the voting site, though, there's no way for them to see what they have entered, as is common on other sites.

Several members stressed that they carefully typed in their password three different times, were rejected each time and, after the third, were locked out of trying again until they contacted the toll-free help line. Some say they endured considerable wait times, only to be told that they could set a new password but would need to wait 24 hours for the password database to refresh before they could try again. (The Academy spokesperson says when members make changes between 6 a.m. and 2 p.m. PT they will be updated by 6 p.m. PT, and when members make changes between 2 p.m. and 6am PST they will be updated by 9am PST the next morning.)

"It’s easier to break into the CIA," one member told me.

When the Academy announced its plans to adopt e-voting on Jan. 25, they hailed as its great virtue the fact that members could vote from anywhere with an Internet connection right up until the voting deadline, as opposed to having to put a paper ballot in the mail days earlier in order to ensure that it arrives in time to be counted. At the time, some (me included) speculated that the change might be too much too soon, particularly because "more than a few members don't even have computers and/or know how to use the Internet." (The median age of the Academy's 5,765 members, according to a recent study, is 62.)

Back then, an Academy spokesperson told The Hollywood Reporter, "We're working on the specific details; however, the Academy will ensure each voting member has an opportunity to participate fully in the process." And they've certainly tried. A mailing went out several months ago offering members the option to vote by paper ballot, as long as they requested one by Nov. 30 -- a deadline that later was extended to Dec. 14. The Academy subsequently sent paper ballots to any members who paid their dues but never replied with a preference. It also set up e-voting stations in Los Angeles, New York and London, where Academy officials can help walk members through the process. And there's also a toll-free help line, with Academy operators available 24/7.

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Still, there have been problems, and several members expressed concern that this burdensome experience will prompt some members to throw in the towel and not vote at all. That, coupled with the abbreviated nominations voting period that the Academy also implemented this year -- which basically overlaps with Christmas/New Year's break and leaves voters with little time to see end-of-the-year releases -- could lead to record-low participation. One member says, "There will probably be a large percentage of people who will just say, 'Screw it,' and not even vote this year." Says another: "I have heard from several that it’s been a disaster and they wanted to give up. Confused and frustrated people will just not vote.”

"We have to balance the opposing needs of convenience and security," counters the Academy spokesperson.

It is true, though, that for voters who return from vacation after the holidays and try to submit an e-vote, there is virtually no margin for error: According to the Academy spokesperson, members need to have registered online by Jan. 2 in order to submit a vote by the 5 p.m. deadline on Jan. 3. This is prompting some members to call for the Academy to extend voting because, they say, the ultimate objective should be to include people in the process, not keep them out.

Additionally, several members voiced concern that the voting website could be susceptible to hacking. "I’m not convinced that it’s exactly the Fort Knox of sites," says one. "It’s probably more difficult for members to log on than it is for hackers!” Another adds: "Nothing’s really secure. There are countries that have been hacked." (This is a reference to the fact that even tightly guarded government websites in the U.S. and Iran have been penetrated by operatives in China and Israel, respectively, and that in some cases it took years before they even knew they had been hacked.)

Members seem to be worried less about ballot-stuffing (since each ballot is associated with a member ID) than ballot-changing (since a member's ballot conceivably could be changed after it is submitted and he or she would never know it). The Academy is taking certain precautions, like asking members to provide a phone number at which they can be reached for an automated confirmation as soon as their ballots are submitted -- but the database of phone numbers could conceivably be interfered with, as well.

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Here are more extensive highlights from my conversation with each Academy member:

Comments: “I received something in the mail that looked to me like junk mail when I first got it. Then I open it up and it’s my [voter ID] number for Academy voting. So many people may have thrown that away, for one thing. ... Then, there’s a problem with using caps and noncaps when you sign-in, which I think may be confusing some people, because when you’re putting in your password you don’t know whether or not you’ve screwed it up. ... And then, you open [the website] up, and it was rather complicated through there. I had to try to sign in several times before I actually got in. My son had to show me that I was done voting and what to press in order to submit. … The whole site was a little bit confusing. ... I imagine some of the less technologically savvy Academy members might be struggling with this. ... It would be an obvious target [for hackers]. … I’m not convinced that it’s exactly the Fort Knox of sites. It’s probably more difficult for members to log on than it is for hackers!”

Ballot: Paper
Comments: “Listen, I don’t do anything online. You know, I don’t even have a computer. I’m writing my next book in longhand with drawings in notebooks!”

Ballot: Online
Comments: “It was kind of a pain in the neck. … When I first signed up, there was a little bit of a hitch because they would tell you, you know, you have your own password, and then you needed a second password for voting, and then when you went to [log in] and it would say, ‘Do it again.’ So I finally called up the Academy, and they were very helpful, and so I assume it worked -- unless someone hacks into the Academy computers, you know what I mean?”

Ballot: Online
Comments:“[I'm pretty technologically literate], but I'm just an old-school person. ... I love seeing that paperwork. … It’s like, do you want to do online banking or do you want to write a check and walk it in and know that it got there? Plus, I thought, 'I want it one more year so I can take a picture of it and say, ‘This is the last year we had paper.’... I’ve heard of problems from several colleagues. They couldn’t execute their vote. They couldn’t make it work. So then they got on the phone line and they couldn’t even get through, and then when they finally did get through they didn’t get the answers that they needed. ... Now, people are reaching out, saying: ‘I don’t want to do this. Please send me the paper. This is lame. I need to be able to do it the way I always did it.' ... All the way around, I think they made a mistake in doing this. … They should have had more lead time than, ‘Here you go; this is what we are expecting now.' ... We’re talking about many elderly people who are not that computer literate. They might think that it’s simple, but the simplest thing isn’t simple to many people. ... There will probably be a large percentage of people who will just say, 'Screw it, and not even vote this year. ... I think [the ballots] all correlate to a specific member, but does that mean a vote couldn’t be changed [by a hacker]? You’d never know. That can’t happen with paper. … Nothing’s really secure. There are countries that have been hacked, you know?”

Ballot: Online
Comments: “I’m having problems with it. … When I signed up a few months ago, they gave me a number, a [Voter ID] number or a special number, and said to put it in a safe place. And then for some reason they sent me a different one in the mail and said to use this one, disregard the other one. So eventually I tried to vote, but it said, ‘Wrong, wrong, wrong.’ And then it logged me out after the third try. So I called the help number, and they said, ‘I’m really sorry, you’ve been locked out, so now we have to give you a brand-new password.’ So we go through all this rigmarole, and then they said, 'You can’t vote for 24 hours [because I was told that their database requires that amount of time to refresh and reflect any changes].' I had to get on an airplane, so I have not voted yet. I tried to do it early and get it done with, but there you go. … It’s definitely problematic. If I try again, and it doesn’t work, I’ll let you know.”

Ballot: Online
Comments: “I still haven’t voted. I couldn’t remember my password, so [after a few tries] they locked me out of it. Once they lock you out of it, you can’t get back in, so you have to get a whole new password and everything, so I did that... I called the help line, and I asked them to walk me through it, and they were very polite and friendly, but you could just hear in the girl’s voice that I was not the only one complaining that day. ... And then they said you can’t vote for 24 hours. ... I have heard from several [fellow members] that it’s been a disaster and they wanted to give up because they couldn’t navigate the system. It wasn’t even letting them in, requiring dual passwords and all this nonsense. ... It’s easier to break into the CIA. ... [I suspect that the number of people voting] will be far fewer than ever before, because confused and frustrated people will just not vote.”

Ballot: Paper
Comments: “I like the old-fashioned paper route. ... I don’t like [online voting]. … It could be anybody voting.”

Ballot: Paper
Comments: [None. He was boarding a plane and did not have time to talk.]

Ballot: Online [This member signed up for online voting Dec. 26 after being alerted by my call that he'd missed the deadline to request a paper ballot, which he says he never knew about because he never received the earlier alert asking him to select a preference and still never received a paper ballot. He acknowledges that he might have mistaken the first communication for trash.]
Thoughts: "You get mailings from the studios, you get mailings from the Academy, you get multiple discs. Every day you get a bunch of different items. ... I thought that I could wait till the 3rd and then log on [through the general membership login]. ... You know, a lot of older, cantankerous people -- people who aren’t so highly motivated to vote -- are gonna say, ‘Oh, forget this.’ I’m sure there’s gonna be some votes lost. ... I know the deadline is coming up, but if enough other people have these problems, do you think they will postpone it?”

Ballot: Online
Thoughts: “I have learned a little lesson over the years: People in Hollywood have no patience. … I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve sent something to somebody, and I know that they’ve gotten it, but they haven’t responded, so I’ve called them, and they say: ‘Oh, I didn’t get it. Can you send it to me again?’ It doesn’t shock me to hear that people are saying that they’re having issues. ... Although for voters that are maybe older and haven’t necessarily done a lot of this kind of stuff online before, it might be confusing. But I’ve talked to other Academy members who are e-voting, and I haven’t heard a thing.”