By Carolyn Schwaar
Enticed by the promise of fast, low-cost elections with greater member participation and a lower risk of human error, Realtor® associations have flocked to online voting. While many associations use very simple online ballots, others have interwoven their online election programs with political outreach, membership surveying, course evaluations, and even opt-in and opt-out e-mail subscriptions.
Offering members a way to participate in the association online has tremendous potential to increase interest in association elections as well as association committee, leadership, and grassroots legislative initiatives.
Of course, before you consider electronic voting, check in with your state association. Most state nonprofit corporation statutes require boards of directors and executive committees to act exclusively through in-person meetings or by teleconferences. While boards and executive committees may take polls by e-mail, until they are ratified at a subsequent in-person meeting, such polls could not be considered votes. These rules generally do not apply to association members, though. So, in many cases, members might be able to vote online even if the board cannot.
The next step is to check the association’s bylaws. Do they call for votes to be cast in person at the association office? If so, this provision will need to be changed and the change adopted before any members can cast votes online.
Elaine Hangis, executive vice president of the Lexington-Bluegrass Association of Realtors®, Ky., explains that bylaws already allowing for voting by mail have, in some cases, been interpreted to include e-mail. “Where the word ‘mail’ is mentioned, the directors said that e-mail was no different than snail mail,” she explains.
Picking a method
The number of startup election management companies offering online services and proprietary software has soared as people from both the private and public sectors look to implement online voting. As with any service or application, there are high-end, full-service models and stripped-down, basic versions. Some are even free. Choosing the right online voting application depends on the association’s budget and what the association wants it to do.
Larger associations may choose to outsource to full-service election companies that will manage the entire election—from data management to tabulation—for a fee. These companies may provide software, customize software, or create custom online voting sites for your association. They take care of list management, custom e-ballot creation and tabulation, and reporting, among other services. For groups facing potentially contentious elections, there is an added benefit to outsourcing: Utilizing the services of an unbiased third party ensures that member votes are collected and counted fairly, without the risk of real or perceived impropriety.
Many online vendors offer voting platforms, essentially a Web site where members log in, enter a password, and cast a vote. Services range from a simple name and check box to multiple ballots with detailed candidate summaries and issue background, and can be available for a per-election fee ranging from about $2,000 to $4,000.
Though there are a host of sophisticated online election services available, most associations need only a minimum level of technology to start online voting. Some vendors offer do-it-yourself online platforms for as little as a few hundred dollars.
The Greater Ogden Area Association of Realtors® in Utah, for example, instituted an online voting procedure that was a simple program extension of the association’s regional MLS.
Curt Singleton, executive vice president, explains, “It took the MLS techies about a month to create a pop-up screen asking members to ‘vote now’ when they logged on to the MLS.”
The way it works is very simple. When members log on to the MLS, a pop-up screen asks if they want to vote. Selecting “yes” takes members to the ballot page, where they can click on a link to view candidate information. After the members choose a candidate and submit their vote, a “thank you” note appears before they are directed back into the MLS. Once a member has decided on a candidate, total voting time is less than 10 seconds, according to Singleton. While the pop-up screen will not appear again for that member during the election period, members who answer “no” to the “vote now” question will have to answer the pop-up screen every time they log on during the election period before they can access the system.
The system stores the voting member’s license number, name, candidate selection, and the date and time that the ballot was cast in a database. The data can then be downloaded into a spreadsheet file that tallies the votes.
A drawback of this system is that not every member logs onto the MLS during the two-week voting period. Also, a personal assistant may be logging on instead of the member. Singleton says, though, that his 48 percent participation rate—up from 17 percent in paper elections—is a more accurate reflection of the membership since it captures those full-time real estate professionals who log on to the MLS every day. Of course, paper ballots are still available at the association office.
Although online voting increases member participation in the long run, some associations will not see an increase right away, according to Saul Klein, president of InternetCrusade, which offers an online voting service to some 22 Realtor® associations. “The best results in terms of member turnout is when the association conducts a few online member surveys first to get members used to the online tool,” he says. It pays off in the end, though, if you take about a year to prepare the membership to vote online with surveys, print publications, and information on your Web site.
A well-written reminder e-mail is also essential to boost member participation, says Dave Simms, president of Elections Online. “A properly crafted e-mail is personalized to the member, pithy, and includes clear instructions and the member’s log-in information,” says Simms.
E-vote is the future
As online shopping, banking, and other transactions become more routine for members, Internet elections will seem natural.
“Your members are more ready than you give them credit for to go to online voting,” says Simms. “Sooner or later, paper elections will be a thing of the past.”
Dive In Today
If you’re ready to dive into electronic voting or enhance how your members participate online, check out these vendors that offer voting products and services for associations
and nonprofit groups.
Survey and Ballot Systems
Offers full-service secure voting processes.
VoteNet Solutions Inc.
Online voting software and election management system ideal for large associations.
Specializes in enabling Web-based voting solutions for associations and institutions.
Provides a wide range of Internet voting and election management services.
** One Person One Voice
Full-service online voting option with mail-in ballot hybrid option.
** Vote Point
Offers voting services plus member outreach and political outreach products.
Vote Pro 4.0
Easy-to-use software tool designed to deliver the voting and survey options for your Web site.
Use e-voting for:
Volunteer officer elections
Board of Directors elections
Realtor® of the Year
Many online voting vendors also allow you to use the same software or service for:
Outreach to elected officials
Calls to action