Online Voting: Advantages and Challenges for Associations
This is a guest post by Tim Madsen, marketing manager for Survey and Ballot Systems. What do you think? Is your association using online voting?
The Importance of Association Elections
Associations rely on active, energized members to stay vibrant and relevant. One important way that members stay engaged is by expressing their opinions through the power of the ballot. Whether it is a leadership election or a referendum on a new policy, voting gives members an unparalleled opportunity to shape the associations to which they belong.
Well-run, transparent elections are the hallmark of principled associations. Open voting reinforces transparency and integrity in organizations’ governance processes.
Open, convenient, and effectively promoted voting also helps encourage member participation. A high participation rate in elections generally indicates a healthy association.
Elections are an important part of association governance, and if you work for or belong to an association, you might be contemplating the best way to organize and run your vote.
Online Voting and Associations
During 2012, the number of Internet users in the United States will reach 239 million, representing 75.6 percent of the country’s population (US Digital Media Usage, eMarketer, January 2012). With a large percentage of people actively using the Internet, it is natural that associations are interested in moving their elections online. Associations can use online voting systems to elect board members and officers, approve or amend bylaws, or select award recipients.
Before putting in place a web election, associations need to consider the benefits and complexities of online voting. Continue reading to learn the advantages and challenges of online voting for associations.
Advantages of Online Voting:
Empowerment. Voting is the most powerful way for members to have a voice in the leadership and direction of their association. When allowed to vote in fair and open elections, members feel a greater sense of value, ownership, and responsibility. Online elections help empower members of associations, societies, and other democratic organizations by making voting easy and convenient.
Accessibility. Online voting allows association members to access their ballots from anywhere at any time, provided they have an Internet connection. This makes casting a vote convenient and fast. Members can cast their votes from home, from work or “on the go” via their mobile devices.
Cost effectiveness. Online voting reduces election budgets by limiting production costs. Paper, printing, and postage costs are all significantly lower for online elections than for traditional voting methods. In addition, staff will save time because online elections eliminate the need to assemble ballot packages and manually tabulate votes.
Security and confidentiality. A properly designed, secure online voting system has safeguards in place to protect voting information and voter identities. A voting website hosted on a secure server will only be accessible to authorized members through unique voter logins. Online ballots are transmitted from voters’ computers or mobile devices to balloting systems using SSL (Secure Sockets Layer), the same encryption technology used by U.S. financial institutions. These layers of protection form a technology shield that detects unauthorized access, eliminates ballot tampering, and reduces the chance of voting fraud.
Eco-friendly. Web-based balloting conserves resources by reducing the amount of paper associated with an election. Paper ballots, envelopes, flyers, and other paper collateral are either moved to electronic format or eliminated. This is particularly important if your association members are sensitive to the use of natural resources.
Membership engagement. Online voting and other modern participation methods demonstrate an association’s commitment to connecting with its members. It shows the organization is staying relevant and is dedicated to keeping in touch.
Appeal to younger members. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 95 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 use the Internet. This means that online options such as web voting might be a great way to get younger members involved in the decision-making process.
Fast, accurate results. With online voting there are no rejected, mismarked or invalid ballots. Results are automatically calculated, eliminating the need for manual tabulation and dreaded recounts. Computerized tabulation allows election managers to quickly announce decisions and results.
Challenges of Online Voting
Legal and bylaw issues. You need to check state statutes and your association’s bylaws to make sure that online voting is an acceptable election method. Often, state law or internal policy clearly states if online methods are acceptable. When in doubt, check with legal counsel. Your organization’s attorney should be able to advise you as to whether you can immediately move forward with online voting. If either state law or internal guidelines prohibit electronic methods, your challenge will be to revise the applicable statute or policy to permit online voting.
Learning curve. As with any new process, online election methods might cause anxiety and trepidation for some members. You’ll need to invest in a well-planned promotion and education strategy to properly teach and reassure members about the new election process. This plan will require buy-in from leadership and must be large enough in scope to reach all members.
Not all organizations are a good fit. Online elections are not the best answer for every association, nor are all association members computer-savvy. Some members may not have easy access to the Internet. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, only 42 percent of Americans ages 65 and older use the Internet. Also, only 67 percent of people living in rural communities use the Internet compared to 81 percent of people living in urban areas. This means that an association consisting primarily of older members who live in sparsely populated areas should consider maintaining some form of traditional voting practice. Before investing in an online voting system, take the time to break down your association’s demographics and tendencies so that you can build a voting process that best serves the needs of your members.
Expertise required. Building an online voting system requires programming experience and an understanding of election processes. Often, associations need to look outside the organization to establish an online voting system either because their staff lacks the necessary expertise or because building such a system internally would put an unreasonable strain on employee resources. If you use an outside vendor, your challenge will be to find an election partner as serious about your election as you are. Ask potential partners for references, and research their track records of serving fellow associations. In some cases, you may find it necessary to issue a request for proposal regarding your election needs to properly compare vendor services and capabilities.
Providing support. A critical piece to any online voting process is providing designated voter support. No matter how well-designed and well-thought-out the online voting system, if members can’t log in or quickly get help when they need it, their perception of the online process will not be favorable. A resource needs to be available to guide struggling members through logging in and casting their votes and to answer frequently asked questions. Your challenge will be to allocate the resources and designate a person to provide the necessary member support.
Establishing an online voting system for your association is not an easy task. With careful research and planning, you can run successful online elections. But don’t take the task of establishing an online voting system lightly as there are sure to be implementation challenges. With an understanding of the demographics and tendencies of your association, you can create a voting process that fits your members’ needs and behavior.
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