By Claire Swedberg
Dec. 6, 2011—Montreal investment organization Fonds de solidarité FTQ
is employing radio frequency identification
to reduce the amount of time and labor that its employees spend counting ballots at its annual shareholders general-assembly meeting and elections. The RFID
-enabled voting ballots are read
by an interrogator
in the back room of the meeting site, to automatically tally each vote and its value (the vote's weight being based on the quantity of shares owned by the voter). In this way, counting and calculating the value of votes for Fonds' board members or officers can now be performed in mere seconds by two individuals (previously, this task required 20 people at least 20 minutes to accomplish). The system is provided by Academia RFID
, a Montreal training facility and applied-research center.
More importantly, says Linda Call, the lead sponsor of Fonds de solidarité FTQ's RFID project, employing an RFID solution rather than a manual count method ensures that no mistakes are made.
Fonds de solidarité FTQ's Linda Call (left) and Josée Legault
Fonds de solidarité FTQ is a development-capital organization for the Fédération des travailleurs du Québec
(FTQ)—the Quebec Federation of Labor—the province's largest labor group. Fonds de solidarité's mission is to create and save jobs in Quebec, by investing in small and midsize businesses. The organization, which has 583,000 shareholders, manages CAN$8.2 billion (US$8.1 billion) worth of assets for those shareholders. Every September, the group holds an assembly meeting that includes shareholder elections, at which time officers or board members are elected or re-elected.
Typically, approximately 2,000 shareholders attend the general assembly each year, placing votes for board members, treasurer, president or other officers, explains Josée Legault, the director of administration for Fonds' trust division. They do so by turning in preprinted ballots, which are then gathered by Fonds' staff and are counted in a back room. Workers must not only count the number of votes, but also use a computer to calculate each vote's value, based on the the number of shares owned by each voter. Other employees then check their work. Vote accuracy is more important than count efficiency, Legault notes, stating, "We must be accurate for our shareholders." The wait for results while this took place, as well as the risk of errors, prompted Fonds de solidarité FTQ's management to seek an automated solution for the vote-tallying process. The organization's director of IT, who had previously met with Academia RFID to consider RFID technology, requested an RFID-enabled voting system for its September 2011 assembly.
As a result, the group developed a solution featuring a ballot sheet perforated into 16 squares, each with an EPC Gen 2
passive RFID inlay
glued to it. Each square was printed with the name of a specific candidate, and that square's RFID inlay was associated with that individual's name in Fonds' back-end system the day before the vote. Every tag
was encoded with an identifier signifying the election year (so that during future elections, no one would be able to utilize an outdated ballot to cast an extra vote). Each ballot sheet was printed with the shareholder's name, and each of the 16 inlays also had an encoded sequential ID number, corresponding in Fonds' back-end system with the shareholder's vote value (in other words, the number of shares that individual owned).
"They came to us in April of 2011, and they saw
we were vendor-neutral," says Anthony Palermo, Academia RFID's director of business development. The group had the concept of an RFID solution, but was unsure whether it would work with hundreds of tags being deposited in ballot boxes, and then being read
by desktop readers. "In a way, they gambled, and so did we," Palermo adds, though the following months were, in fact, a matter of exhaustive tests and research into the types of RFID hardware best suited for the solution, as well as the mistakes that could occur—such as misreads, if a ballot were folded, crumpled or otherwise damaged, or if ballots were very tightly packed.
"The system had to be absolutely foolproof," Call explains, "which is why we needed a lot of tests prior to the assembly."
Academia RFID's test team selected Alien Technology
's Squiggle ultrahigh-frequency
) Gen 2 passive RFID tags, which the research center encoded for Fonds de solidarité FTQ. Within a day before the general-assembly meeting, Fonds printed a particular shareholder's name, as well as those of the individuals running for office, on each ballot. The group used an Impinj
Speedway Revolution R420 reader
wired to a Laird Technologies
Cushcraft S9028 antenna
. The R420 reader was installed at an isolated location within Fonds' back room, so that during the shareholders' meeting, the device would not capture reads from other tags within the area (for example, discarded tags that election workers may have picked up and carried in their pockets).
On the day before the assembly meeting, the group ran a "dress rehearsal," in which it utilized 2,000 ballot sheets, each containing 16 tags, and staged a mock election in which members then gathered votes and tallied them using the RFID
readers. The system worked properly, Fonds reports, and was then used at the actual event with another 2,000 ballot sheets. To vote for particular candidates, a shareholder tore off the perforated ballots printed with those candidates' names, and placed them in a box carried through the assembly room by staff members. The workers then took the boxes to the interrogator
and placed them individually on the reader's antenna
. The device captured the ID numbers and other data, and forwarded that information to Effecto RFID Middleware
(ERM), developed and provided by Effecto Solutions
, for filtering and interpretation. The data was then sent to Fonds' existing software, which tabulated the votes and their values. The entire tallying process lasted only a few seconds.
Each box was then removed, shaken and placed once more onto the reader
, for a total of three times. The entire process went without a hitch, Palermo reports, expect for one instance in which the quantity of ballots within the box varied during two successive read attempts, after which the ballots held in that box were counted manually. However, he says, the manual recount resulted in mistakes, necessitating a second manual recount.
Altogether, Academia RFID encoded 64,000 tags for use during the rehearsal and the actual event. About 2,000 voting shareholders attended the meeting (Fonds de solidarité FTQ did not provide mail-in ballots for shareholders who were not present). Palermo estimates that the cost for the hardware and middleware, combined, was between $5,000 and $6,000.
With the RFID system, Call says, the work that had previously required 20 employees—two at each of 10 stations—counting ballots or double-checking the results, now could be performed by only two workers. By utilizing RFID tags, she adds, "the ballots will cost more, but there will be less labor." The true returns for Fonds, she notes, were the time saved and the reduction of error risk. "Next year, we will use the system again."