The suite of digital tools for voting by judges — and vote counting by contest leaders — can allow you to get a vote very quickly if everything goes right. Here are the things you should do to make everything go right — and to be prepared when something goes wrong.
I have now been using some version of these tools for more than 3 years and have been involved in several contests that have gone swimmingly, as well as a few that had hiccups. When I think I can change the software to eliminate problems, I try to do so. But any software is just a tool, and how you use the tool makes a big difference.
Get Everything Set Up as Early as Possible
Set up the contest dashboard well in advance. On a club website, you would pick Contest Dashboard on the Agenda menu for the contest meeting date. You can also set up a contest dashboard independent of a WordPress for Toastmasters club website at contest.toastmost.org.
Familiarize yourself with the Contest Dashboard ahead of time, including all of the tabs across the bottom.
Before the contest begins, make sure you have set the speaker order. There’s an automated way of doing that through the tool, but if you use some other method make sure you record it manually on the Contestants tab. The digital ballots will not be active until the speaking order has been set.
Send the Links to the Judges and Timer ASAP
Each judge is assigned a personalized digital ballot link. The official contest timer gets a similar link for the official timer’s report. I like to email out those links at least a day ahead of time. Even a few hours ahead of time might be okay. Next, confirm everyone got the link and can access the link. Some people will not have seen the email, or their spam filter ate it, or it turns out there was a typo in their email address.
The Email Links tab of the contest dashboard will help you send out those personalized links with a brief note up top. Follow up with another email from your regular email account, or a call or a text, or all of the above. You can use the follow up email to make sure the judges also have a printable PDF copy of the ballot as a backup.
Fallback Plan: Share Links By Private Chat
In one recent contest I assisted with, where the links hadn’t been emailed out in advance, I wasted time doing that while the contest was already running late. It took me a few minutes to realize sending the links to the judges as Zoom private chat messages was a much faster way of solving the problem. Something like WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger could have served the same purpose.
You might also find yourself doing this for a judge who did receive the email but now can’t locate it in their cluttered inbox.
Grant at Least One Other Person Access to the Dashboard
The Contest Dashboard is password protected, since it includes confidential information like the identities of the judges. The Security tab allows you to designate that other people such as the ballot counters should have access.
The chief judge should have access, but you might also invite the contest master or a trusted club officer.
You want to have backups for everything, including your own participation.
Make Ballot Counters Your Troubleshooters
Even though votes should start showing up on the Contest Dashboard seconds after they are cast, you may want to have your ballot counters reach out to each judge (via Zoom chat, WhatsApp, or text) to ensure they were able to complete the process successfully. The Contest Dashboard will show who has and has not voted, so if someone has not cast their vote, the ballot counters should find out why not and resolve the issue.
If contest officials don’t like accepting electronic signatures, an alternative is to have the judges take a picture of the signed paper form and text it to a ballot counter. If the digital ballot submission goes through properly, they can just verify that it matches the image.
Meanwhile, the software will be rapidly tallying the results.
For Votes Received by Alternate Means, Use the Backup Ballots
The Backup Ballots tab of the Contest Dashboard will allow you to record the votes of someone who texted or emailed their vote, so that it’s included in the final tally.
Consider Disabling Password Protection for Ballots
Password protection for ballots can be enabled or disabled when you first set up the contest, and you can change it later on the Security tab of the Contest Dashboard. Password protection is enabled by default because it’s always a good idea to have the most secure option turned on by default.
At least at the club level, the “security by obscurity” of a coded link personalized for each judge may be adequate protection — and avoids issues with members who have trouble remembering and resetting passwords.
Have a Solid Plan B
The point of using these digital contest tools is to save you work, and save you stress, and they should do just that. Yet it’s always wise to distrust technology, at least a little, knowing that it could fail you. When we conduct contests online, we run the risk of all sorts of technology failures, including contestants having their internet connections drop in the middle of a speech.
If a judge should be knocked offline while the contestants are speaking, they should disqualify themselves as unable to judge the contest fairly. At a recent contest, one of our judges made it through the contest only to have his computer spontaneously restart before he could cast his ballot (we later got his vote by text).
Worst case scenario: the web server that hosts the digital ballots and the dashboard could crash in the middle of the contest. I’d like to say it could never happen, but ….
Make sure judges have a printout of the paper ballot handy as a backup. Give specific directions for how they should get you their votes if they are unable to complete the digital ballot (for example, by texting a ballot counter or the chief judge). Make sure they have all your contact information.
Yes, It’s Still Worth It
While lots of things could go wrong, that’s true of any event you plan, online or off. The better you prepare for anything life might throw at you, the better your odds of spectacular success.