The COVID-19 pandemic affected the daily lives of millions in the United States and around the world in myriad ways, including the business of managing an HOA or condo association. Although electronic voting for association elections has been allowed by the Florida legislature since 2016, it wasn’t broadly adopted until the pandemic’s quarantines and social distancing protocols drove activities online.
Back to ‘Normal’?
Even with the pandemic on the wane and in-person gatherings back on the calendar, some associations are opting to keep using electronic voting and hybrid meetings—and it’s worthwhile to examine why that is. Some associations with high percentages of seasonal residents that embraced electronic voting and remote meetings during the worst of the pandemic have found that handing things virtually is a great way to encourage participation, even when people aren’t local. Others have returned to in-person meetings, but have stuck with electronic voting for the same reasons: convenience and increased participation.
“A lot of associations are still operating in a hybrid fashion, even though they can be fully in-person if they choose,” explains Erol Ugljanin, Vice President of Management at AKAM. “Remote meetings are still an option, and many associations have embraced that approach for open meetings. It adds a level of accessibility to members who are working or traveling and can’t attend in person. The intent is to foster confidence in an association. We have embraced and encouraged this approach.”
Using an electronic means of voting also takes the human element out of vote counting, leading to greater confidence in the results. “It eliminates the headaches of counting paper ballots, and you don’t have to discern voter intention on a poorly marked vote, which leads to a smoother running community,” Ugljanin says.
Ugljanin also notes that some board members and wider association members have realized that it might be easier to make a rule change or get an approval on a controversial topic if they can more easily expand participation among the membership. “A lot of people want to participate in the running of their associations, but don’t have the time to attend in-person meetings,” he says. “Virtual and hybrid meetings and elections are a great way to encourage that involvement.”
So how can Florida associations incorporate electronic voting for elections? It’s important to know that the state requires both a 14-day notice of an association’s resolution to shift to electronic voting, as well as another 14-day notice before any electronic election is held. Any member who votes electronically is considered to have attended the meeting, and members who consent to online voting are considered to have consented to it until they explicitly revoke that consent.
Additionally, the resolution must provide that:
• All unit owners receive notice of the opportunity to vote through an online voting system prior to each election or other vote in which the association authorizes online voting
• The deadline to consent in writing to online voting must be no less than 14 days before the election or other unit owner vote
• A method must be in place to authenticate the unit owner’s identification to the online voting system
• The method used to transmit electronic ballots to the online voting system must ensure the secrecy and integrity of each ballot; and,
• At least 14 days before the voting deadline, a method must be in place to confirm that the unit owners’ electronic devices can successfully communicate with the online voting system.
Remember that the resolution to vote electronically must be provided to owners once it passes the board of directors.
The Technical Side
According to 2022 Florida statute (found here: www.leg.state.fl.us/), any system an association uses to vote is statutorily required to be able to do the following:
• Authenticate the member’s identity to the online system
• Confirm at least 14 days ahead of the election that association members can communicate to the online system—this is especially important for people using older devices that may not be secure or able to run the software
• Remain consistent with existing bylaws regarding elections and voting
• Authenticate the validity of each vote
• Provide each voter with a receipt of transmission
• If the association provides for secret balloting, it must maintain each voter’s anonymity by separating identifying information from the ballot
• Store and keep ballots for recount, inspection and review.
According to Ugljanin, “The most important thing for associations to remember is that they must use a tool that abides by state law. SurveyMonkey or other similar polling tools are not secure enough, and are not appropriate for this use.”
In addition to meeting the security and identity requirements of the statute, Ugljanin recommends looking for a voting solution with mobile capability. The more ways that owners can access the voting system, the more likely they are to participate.
What should associations do to prepare for an electronic vote? “Prior to meetings, test the software, so you have a chance to work out any technical issues,” Ugljanin recommends. “Doing so will save time during the actual meeting and allow you to assist owners who may run into similar difficulties.”
He also suggests that only one person serve as the designated host for the election meeting. Some virtual software allows the meeting facilitator to designate multiple hosts, but for an election, Ugljanin recommends only appointing one participant the ability to mute or unmute people, which will keep the meeting on track and running smoothly.
Given all the benefits and convenience of electronic voting, switching might seem like a no-brainer—but nevertheless, there are residents and even some board members who object to the transition from in-person paper ballots to an all-online process. Objections most often come from mistrust of technology, or simple unfamiliarity with a new protocol.
“Lack of familiarity with and concerns about the technology are the biggest obstacles I’ve seen to associations going electronic,” Ugljanin says, “but we’ve helped boards set up everything they need, and once they’ve seen how easy it was, they’ve been thrilled with it. Education is the key to overcoming obstacles. It’s our job to educate and walk them through it. We’ve created training modules and videos on how to use Zoom—which most of our associations prefer over other tools, with Microsoft Teams coming in second.”
Even with the worst of the pandemic in the rearview, electronic voting is here to stay. As more associations see the benefits of increased participation and efficiency, the trend is expected to continue—and it’s up to boards and managers to do their homework in order to know the regulations around e-voting, understand how the technology works, and communicate clearly and transparently with their residents about the process for a seamless transition and results that the whole community can trust to be fair.
Regan Marock is Senior Vice President of AKAM Southeast Region, and is based in the Miami-Ft. Lauderdale area.