1. What does “no opinion” mean? It means you are providing no information about how this choice ranks with respect to the other choices. For example, if you give one choice the rank 1, and give all other choices the rank “no opinion”, your ballot becomes useless because it doesn't express any preferences. Voters often pick “no opinion” when what they mean is that they don't like the choice or that they don't have any information about it. In these situations, it is often better to give the choice a low rank rather than to select “no opinion”. A good reason for a voter to give a choice the rank “no opinion” is because the voter isn't supposed to express an opinion about that choice.
  2. Why doesn't the voting interface use my favorite language? CIVS supports several different languages, including Chinese, French, German, Italian, Hebrew, and Portuguese. If your favorite language is not supported, your help in localizing CIVS to it would be much appreciated!

Setting up a poll

  1. What is the difference between Condorcet voting and voting methods that I am familiar with? Condorcet voting methods let voters rank their preferences and do a good job of aggregating all the voter preferences into a single ranking. [ More information on Condorcet voting ]
  2. For how long a period should I enable voting? This is up to you. The best time period depends on your voters. For voters who are aware of the poll or who check email frequently, a couple of days is usually enough time. Most people vote right away, or not at all. Election durations of more than a week are usually too long, unless your intention is to set up a long-running public survey.
  3. I would like to separate out the acceptable choices from the unacceptable choices. Can I do that? Just create a choice named something like “choices ranked below this are unacceptable”. You can then use the poll results in various ways. If you want reject choices that are considered unacceptable by a plurality of voters, reject those that are ranked below this pseudo-choice. If you want to find the choices that are acceptable to every voter, they are the ones that unananimously (n–0) beat this pseudo-choice. (This is handy for scheduling meetings where everyone needs to be present.)
  4. How big a poll can I run? CIVS is used regularly for polls with hundreds of voters. You can set up a public poll where any number of people can vote. Elections have been successfully run with a couple of thousand voters, and this is a load it should stand up to even if voters all try to vote around the same time. Election results are now cached, so the system has become much more scalable.

    However, CIVS hasn't been stress-tested at 10,000 voters or higher. The server is implemented in Perl, so it can easily handle 4,000 voters per hour. If your voters don't show up faster than that, and they usually don't, it should be fine no matter how many voters there are. If you want to have a private poll, the system will only allow you to add 1,000 voters at a time, but in principle you can have as many voters as you want. Note that using the experimental proportional method for your poll can dramatically increase the load on the CIVS server, so avoid that mode for large polls.

  5. How reliable is CIVS? There have been no data losses due to hardware failure on the Cornell installation, and no problems with poll results being corrupted due to bugs, since 2006. Each poll is stored in a separate database, so if there were data corruption, it could can affect only one poll.
  6. A complete ranking of choices could embarrass some candidates. Can I avoid that? By default, full poll results are available to every voter. However, you can designate a smaller set of people who are allowed to see the poll results. They can then report the winners to the voters, using some mechanism outside of CIVS.
  7. I'm paranoid. Can I make sure the person or people running the CIVS web site can't learn what my voters are voting on? Yes, just give your choices nondescriptive names like A, B, C, .... Then, send all voters an explanation of what those names stand for. Less convenient for voters, but completely private.
  8. Can poll choices include images? Sure. Just use an HTML <img> tag. Many standard HTML tags are supported, though there is filtering to block XSS attacks.
  9. Why doesn't CIVS support my favorite election method (STV, ...)? The focus has been on supporting Condorcet methods, which guarantee (when they can) that no one is preferred over the winner. However, the interface for adding new election methods is relatively clean, so you can add your own election methods if you like. We may even add them to CIVS if you provide the code.
  10. Can I answer multiple questions within one poll? Yes. While CIVS only allows one ranking to be defined per poll, it is possible to create polls in which incomparable things are ranked at the same time. For example, if you wanted to pick a place to hold a meeting and also a time to hold it, you could have several choices that are meetings and several that are times, and instruct the voters to rank all places above all times. Assuming your voters followed instructions, the poll result will have all places ranked above all times, and their relative rankings will match what you would have gotten if you had run two separate polls.
  11. What happens if I enter a voter's email address wrong? They will not receive their voter key and will be unable to vote. If you determine that you entered a bad email address for a voter, you can fix the problem by adding them again under the correct email address. If the bad address wasn't a good address for the wrong person, a bounce message may come back to the CIVS supervisor, and you may receive an email identifying such bounces. However, don't count on learning all the bad addresses this way: bounce notifications may not be sent, parsing email bounces is fragile, and the supervisor may not have time to help you. The best policy is to verify all emails that you give to CIVS before adding voters.

Running a poll

  1. Some voters never got their voter keys. What do I do? It depends on whether you sent the voter key to the right address in the first place. If so, you can send it again by “adding” that voter with the poll control page. The same voter key will be generated, so the voter won't be able to vote twice. If the email address was broken, then email should have bounced. In that case it should be safe to add the voter under their correct email address. You can check with the CIVS supervisor whether the email bounced, assuming you were not notified.
  2. Why doesn't the poll end automatically at the specified time? We wanted to give poll supervisors the flexibility to write complex specifications of when the poll should end, such as “by March 3 or when we get at least 100 votes”. It's too hard to handle all these cases. The supervisor can easily monitor progress through the poll control page. The supervisor needs to...supervise.
  3. The voters haven't bothered to vote. Can I send them their voter keys again? Yes, just “add” them again at the poll control page. This will send them all email. Make sure you use exactly the same email address you did the first time; otherwise, a new voter key will be generated because it's a different voter as far as CIVS can tell. For security and privacy reasons, CIVS doesn't record voter email or voter keys, so it has no way to send an already generated voter key to a new email address.
  4. How long will poll results remain available? We are making a best effort to keep poll results forever, for any poll that receives more than one vote and doesn't look like a test of the system. However, you may want to make a copy of the poll results page for posterity.
  5. Why doesn't the system notify voters when the poll has ended? Because it doesn't know who the voters are any more. Once voter keys are sent out, all information about the voters is destroyed. It's the job of the poll supervisor to close the poll and notify voters or result recipients.
  6. Can I make current poll results visible before the poll closes? This increases the danger of strategic voting. However, it is the behavior for “public” polls.
  7. Why don't voters see the ballot in their favorite language? CIVS supports several languages, including at least the following: English, German, French, Italian, Chinese, Hungarian, Hebrew, and Portuguese. The language used by CIVS is determined by the user's preferences, as set in the web browser. For example, in Firefox, this is under the “Content” tab. If voters' preferred language is supported by CIVS, but is not displayed to them, then they have not set their language preferences correctly.

Security and Privacy

For a discussion of security and privacy in CIVS, see here.