The first House Organ Pet Poll is now over, and I can honestly say that of all
the pet polls I have ever been involved with, this was definitely one of them.
We at House Organ World Headquarters announced the poll in conjunction with our
February “Pets of the Medical Center” issue. For many years we’ve asked VMC staff, faculty, students and volunteers to send in pictures of
their dogs, cats and other household beasts. We then pick some of the pictures (there are usually between 400 and 500 submitted)
and print some of the best in the magazine.
This is probably the most popular issue of the year, and I am not at all bitter
to know that I could write the greatest article in the history of journalism
and it would not be nearly as big a hit with readers as a series of photos of
Anyway, this year we decided to jazz things up with an online poll. The poll
consisted of two online ballots, one of dogs and one of cats, and we asked
readers to vote for their favorite of each—as many times as they’d like, American Idol-style.
I thought it would be fun thing, with groups of friends rallying to vote for
their favorite dog and cat. The numbers were posted instantly online, so it was
possible to follow the results as the votes came in.
The poll went live at the same time the February issue was posted online,
Friday, Feb. 6.
I checked in after a while, and beagle puppy Jethro Van Gogh was leading the
pack (har!), while on the feline side, Spot, an impossibly cute fuzzy kitten,
surged out to an early lead.
The lead changed a couple of times as the day went on, but here’s how I knew things were getting weird: there were more than 20,000 votes in the
first four hours of the poll, by Friday night the total vote had topped
100,000, and it continued to climb over the weekend.
Monday morning: the total had grown to more than 800,000 votes. There were
people taking this seriously. Sweetie the bulldog, who must have been holding campaign rallies over the
weekend, was in particular pulling in big numbers.
It was around then that I first heard from Information Technology Services, in
the form of a very polite e-mail with the laconic subject line “A very popular poll.”
Kevin McDonald of ITS was writing to let me know that the volume of voting in
the dog and cat poll had threatened to overwhelm University servers over the
weekend, and that as the votes for the hounds and terriers and tabbies
continued to pour in, it was continuing to be a real problem. The IT folks were
also able to tell that some of that volume was due to computers being set up to
do automated voting.
While setting up a computer to automatically vote again and again in the contest
was not against the rules, I think it’s fair to say it was against the spirit of the contest as I intended it. I had
thought if people wanted to vote again and again for a favorite cat or dog,
they would at least have to sit and do it themselves.
Since the poll was putting the University’s computing ability at risk, I naturally gave the OK to block the computers that
were sending in automated voting.
This did not solve the problem, but instead led to several days of
automated-voting-whack-a-mole, in which votes would start to pour in from an
automated voting program, ITS would block the site, followed by votes beginning
to pour in again from another computer, followed by ITS blocking THAT site.
Zoie, the wide-eyed little terrier who appears to be wearing Easter-bunny ears
was by this point giving Sweetie the bulldog a run for her money, but they were both trailing Chance the black Lab, who had pulled into the lead
by retrieving more than half a million votes.
In the cat division, the early lead by little fuzzy Spot had been removed due to
an onslaught by Mufassa, the yawning, or perhaps yowling, tabby.
It was a real barn-burner of an election, but I didn’t want the flames to spread to the University’s computing capacity. So, after continuing to follow the situation with help
from our ITS colleagues, I stopped the unlimited voting on Friday, Feb. 13. It
was too risky to let it go on, especially for the sake of a fun poll about dogs
Almost 2 million votes had been cast in about eight days.
Some perspective: this is more votes than either presidential candidate received
in Tennessee in last year’s election.
So, we saw which dog and cat were ahead at the point at which voting was
stopped, and decided that we would declare those pets the Dog of the Year and
Cat of the Year in the Unlimited Voting Division of the poll.
Then we wiped the slate clean, and set up voting on the basis of one-computer-one-vote, which we decided to call the Limited Voting Division. We
put up a notice on the House Organ Web site and informed the nominees—the people, not the pets—that the new contest would go until the original polling deadline, Tuesday, Feb.
24, at 10 a.m.
That was also a spirited contest, with Oliver leaving the other dogs on the
porch, and Rocky scratching litter in the face of his feline competition.
On behalf of Sweetie, Mufassa, Chance, Oliver, Spot, Rocky, Skylr, the adorable
Ahchi, and all the other nominee pets, thanks to those who voted, thanks to
those who enjoyed the issue, thanks to those who sent in entries, and a big
thanks to ITS for keeping the University servers operating.
Two cat winners, two dog winners, 2 million votes.
It’s a good thing we weren’t giving away any prizes or anything. Otherwise this might have gotten out of