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. What does it mean to activate me as a user? Because of its strong privacy protections, CIVS does user management very differently from most web services. CIVS does not store any information about its users, and it does not have a login process. At the same time, for private polls, CIVS is a fully opt-in service. By activating yourself as a user, you permit CIVS to send you email, by checking its database of cryptographic hashes of email addresses. In the activation process, you prove to CIVS that you control the email address you activate, which is important for your protection.
  3. Why doesn't the voting interface use my favorite language?
    CIVS supports several different languages, including Chinese, French, German, Italian, Hebrew, Hungarian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, and Thai. Note that CIVS decides what language to show you based on your browser preference settings, so make sure you have told your browser your preferred language. If your favorite language is not supported, your help in localizing CIVS to it would be much appreciated!
  4. If I change my mind, can I recast my vote? Yes, but you need to save your voting receipt in order to do that. Otherwise CIVS can't find your old ballot; it only knows whether you have voted but not what your vote was. The receipt allows CIVS to find your ballot and remove it so you can vote again.
  5. I don't like a poll that I have been invited to vote in. Can I ask to have the poll taken down?
    Polls will not be taken down by the CIVS administrator without the permission of the poll supervisor except in extreme cases where the poll contains material in violation of U.S. law or where the poll contains clearly threatening or abusive content, in compliance with 47 U.S.C. § 230. In any case, any takedown request to the CIVS administrator should copy the poll supervisor.

    The CIVS administrator cannot make value judgments about poll content. Responsibility for the content of polls lies with the poll supervisors; CIVS is a medium for user communication rather than a publisher of content.

    Pragmatically, attempts to censor polls are mostly pointless. Any message that poll creators could send through CIVS can be more easily sent directly by email.

  6. I don't like a poll invitation I received from CIVS. Can I prevent this from happening?
    You can block email from poll supervisors based on their email address (or address pattern) using the mail management page.

    If that is not good enough, you can also opt out of all email from CIVS using the same page. Warning: if you deactivate email from CIVS, the service will not be usable for you, and it is difficult to reactivate because CIVS uses email for user authentication. Be sure to save the email containing your deactivation code so you can reactivate email later.

  7. When I opted in to get email from CIVS, it showed me all the polls I had been invited to. But if I opt in again, it doesn't show more recent polls. What's going on?
    CIVS records voting credentials (keys) for voters who haven't opted in, so that they can vote once they opt in. However, once voters have opted in, they are expected to receive credentials over email. CIVS does not record their credentials, to reduce the security risk if the server were compromised. Poll supervisors can always resend voters their credentials, so voters should contact the supervisor if they have lost the URL they were sent.

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 aim to 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 unanimously (n–0) beat this pseudo-choice. (This is handy for scheduling meetings where everyone needs to be present.)
  4. How many candidates/choices can I meaningfully rank with a poll? It depends on the number of voters. Empirically, it seems that to rank the top N choices, you should have at least 3N voters.
  5. CIVS is not letting me send email to some voters in my private poll. What do I do? CIVS changed its policy on email communication in April 2021. Previously, users could be added as voters without agreeing to receive email. Misuse of the system led to an opt-in approach: to vote in a private poll, a voter must agree to receive email from the system. Opting in is done using the “Activate user” page:

    It is also possible that some voters have explicitly opted out from CIVS email. These users cannot simply opt in; they have to reactivate email using a deactivation code they received earlier, at the mail management page.

  6. 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 several 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 on polls of 20,000 or more voters. The server is implemented in Perl, and it can easily handle a few thousand 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. For private polls, the system only allows adding 1,000 voters at a time, but there is no limit on the number of voters added eventually. CIVS does limit the rate at which new voters can be added to a poll by controlling how quickly it is willing to send out invitations by email. For polls with more than 10,000 voters, you may have to spread out the invitations over hours or days.

    Note that using the experimental proportional method for your poll can dramatically increase the load on the CIVS server, so please avoid that mode for large polls, especially if there are many candidates to choose from.

  7. How reliable is CIVS? There have been no known data losses due to hardware failure, 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 in a poll, it would affect only that poll.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. Can poll choices include images? Sure. Just use an HTML <img> tag. There is a maximum size for images: they cannot be larger than 1048576 bytes in size.
  11. Can poll choices and descriptions include HTML formatting? Yes, many standard HTML tags are supported, though there is filtering to block XSS attacks. For example, you can include paragraphs, ordered and unordered lists, standard text style directives like bold, italic, and code-font text.
  12. Can poll choices include Unicode characters including emojis? No problem, assuming users' browsers know how to render them.
  13. 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.
  14. 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.
  15. 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 administrator, 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 administrator may not have time to help you. The best policy is to verify all emails that you give to CIVS before adding voters.
  16. Can I create a mock poll to explore how CIVS works? Yes, just tick the box in the More Options section that is labeled “Make this a test poll: read all votes from a file.” Then, once you start the poll you can upload mock ballots. The ballot format is pretty simple. The ballot file should be a text file with one ballot on each line. Each line contains the ranks of the N choices, in order, separated by either commas or spaces. A rank is either a number from 1 to N, or a dash (-) to represent “no opinion”. Not all ranks need to be used, and two choices may be given the same rank. Lines may be terminated with either a Unix-style LF or a Windows-style CR/LF. Whitespace is ignored, and lines whose first non-whitespace character is # are also ignored. A line may also begin with mX where m is a number, which signifies m identical ballots that are described by the rest of the line.

    Here are some examples of ballots:

    Ballot lineComments
    1,4,3,2,5 A simple ballot ranking five choices.
    5,4,4,4,2 Ranking five choices where three choices are tied.
    5 - 2 - 3 Another ranking of five choices. Dashes indicate unranked choices.
    8X1 4 3 2 5 Eight ballots like the first example ballot.
  17. Why do the website or the invitation emails appear in a language other than the one I want to use? CIVS uses your browser preference settings to decide what languages you speak, and it displays instructions and sends emails to voters in the most preferred language that it supports. If you are seeing a language other than the one you prefer to use, change your browser settings accordingly. If your users speak multiple languages, you will want to write instructions in all the languages; CIVS does not translate for you.

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 administrator whether the email bounced, assuming you were not notified.
  2. My poll closed itself without my asking for it. What's going on? This odd behavior often seems to be caused by a "safe links" feature of some Outlook installations. CIVS sends links through email; the mailer rewrites its links to go to a safe links site instead, which simulates clicking all the links in the destination page (to make sure they're "safe"). Unfortunately, one of those "links" is the button for closing the poll. The workaround is to manually copy the URL from the email and paste it into the browser, rather than clicking on the link in the email. Then go complain to your IT staff about their annoying "security feature". Some security software may automatically click links for you under some settings. Check your configuration settings and if necessary, whitelist CIVS so its links don't get clicked automatically.
  3. 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. But the supervisor can easily monitor progress through the poll control page. The supervisor needs to...supervise.
  4. Some 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. It also cannot distinguish between voters who have voted and ones who have not, so it can't tell you who hasn't voted and it can't selectively send keys only to non-voters.
  5. 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, it would be prudent to make a copy of the poll results page for posterity.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. I lost the email that lets me see the election results. What do I do?
    Notify the poll supervisor. A button on the poll control page lets the poll supervisor resend you the link.
  9. 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, Portuguese, and Thai. The language used by CIVS is determined by the user's preferences, as set in the web browser. If a voter's preferred language is supported by CIVS, but is not displayed to them, then they have not set their browser language preferences correctly. The contribution of support for additional languages or of improvements to existing language support is most welcome.

Security and Privacy

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

How can I help?

CIVS is a free service maintained and updated by volunteers. New feature suggestions and implementations are welcome. The CIVS suggestion box is a good source of feature ideas. In addition: