Should You Suspect Cheating when a Voting Contest Suddenly Pulls Ahead?

At First Glance, It Might Look Like Cheating, But...

Image of faceless people voting.
When votes are faceless, it's hard to tell what's real. Image (c) Gobyg / DigitalVision Vectors / Getty Images

My Competitor Got a Huge Number of Contest Votes Overnight. Is Someone Cheating?

Many online contests make gathering votes a part of their process for choosing winners. Some rely entirely on votes to determine who wins (I call these "voting contests"), while others use them to narrow down the pool to be judged, or to pick a winner from among finalists.

When you are counting on votes to win, it can be disheartening to see a competitor suddenly pull ahead, especially if you were in the lead.

And especially, if the pattern of the votes they receive appear suspicious.

For example, here is an email I received from one of my readers:

I entered a voting contest, and I was in the lead when suddenly one of my competitors got hundreds of votes overnight. They must have cheated, right? How else could they have gotten so many votes so quickly?

Answer: It's possible that someone is cheating, but there are also other legitimate reasons for a competitor to pull ahead.

Cheating is a major concern in contests, both for the entrants who want a legitimate playing field and for the sponsors, who don't want negative publicity.

Even Oprah was accused of rigging a contest when an entrant received hundreds of thousands of votes in an hour, unseating a popular contestant who had been in the lead for weeks. The result? Lots of negative publicity.

Sometimes, people do cheat in voting contests, tallying up hundreds of thousands of illicit votes using bots, sockpuppets, or other methods.

A sudden influx of votes could mean that an entrant has exploited a flaw in the code to cheat.

However, there are also legitimate ways to score a large number of votes in a short period of time, especially if a competitor has influence with a large group of people.

For example, in my now-defunct sweepstakes blog, readers accused sponsor ThePamperedPup of rigging a contest.

However, the company responded in the comments, and explained the influx of votes that one competitor received:

[the contestant's] husband was an executive with The PGA of America. He had access to an email list that contained hundreds of thousands of addresses. I believe it was ten days prior to the conclusion of the contest that a mass email went out to all the addresses contained in that list. We fully investigated the tens of thousands of votes that came pouring in as a result, and determined that there was in fact no cheating that occurred.

If you're up against someone who has access to an email list of hundreds of thousands of names, or whose entry gets promoted on a local news station or who is able to get their entry to go viral for some other reason, a huge overnight jump in votes can be completely legitimate.

And there's a third possibility as well:  that a jump in votes was caused by a technical problem with the contest that's not your competitor's fault. Unfortunately, even with the best of intentions, mistakes happen, and it's possible that something could be wrong with the contest's code and its ability to track votes. So don't assume the sponsor or your competitor is cheating when there's a chance that it's a simple (and correctable) mistake.

What Should You Do If You Suspect Cheating?

The best thing that you can do if you think someone is cheating in a contest is to document your reasons for suspicion and (politely!) inform the sponsor.

The sponsor can investigate and determine where the votes are coming from. If necessary, they can add more security, disqualify a cheating competitor, or take other action necessary to resolve the problem.

Want to find legitimate ways to get the edge in voting contests? Read How to Get Votes for Your Contest Entries and 4 Easy Ways to Use Facebook to Get Votes.

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