Getting Out the Vote Holding Fair Elections

Getting Out the Vote

 When it comes to running board elections in a condo or co-op community, the  biggest concern among those involved is making sure the elections are fair and  balanced and nobody has a reason to cry foul. Elections can be heated as it is,  so the voting process should run smoothly and without any hiccups. One election  tabulation company representative remembers an extremely heated election she  monitored where physical fighting even broke out. “It was bad,” she wryly recalls.  

 One of the most common problems that South Florida condos and co-ops face is  actually getting anybody on to the ballot in the first place. “There is a tremendous difficulty getting people willing to put in the time to  step forward to serve on the board. In most communities it is a fairly  thankless job, it is a volunteer position which can be very time consuming,” says Kenneth Direktor, an attorney in the West Palm Beach-based law firm of  Becker & Poliakoff. “It is also a position where you simply cannot hope to please everyone.”  

 So is the term ‘fair election’ an oxymoron? Although unfair elections—where there have been broken voting machines or improper ballot counting—make front page news like the disputed 2000 presidential election—the truth is that it’s not common for elections to be unfair, at least technically speaking. On the  other hand, it’s pretty easy to have a fair election for a co-op or condo board if these few  basic guidelines are followed.  

 Follow the Bylaws

 Check the bylaws to find out how often your elections should be held, and when.  Typically, elections are held annually. Direktor explains that according to  Florida law, the current board must give a 60-day notice of the election,  giving all those who want to run a chance to put their name on the ballot.  Following, is a mailing of the ballot to all unit owners, after which the  ballots are mailed back and tallied.  

 According to the pros, the election process is usually the same for co-op and  condo buildings. In co-ops, each shareholder is entitled to a number of votes  equal to the number of shares they own; in condos, each unit could be allocated  a number of votes equal to the percentage of common interest owned—though some condos allow unit owners to vote on a one-vote-per-unit basis.  

 It's also possible for each co-op shareholder or condo unit owner to be allowed  to cast the number of votes allocated to such owner for a number of candidates  equal to the number of board seats up for election. As another alternative,  some co-ops allow what’s called cumulative voting, where shareholders can multiply the number of votes  they have times the number of board seats up for election and then distribute  the total among one or more candidates of their choosing. Although it sounds  confusing, each community's bylaws are a great instruction manual to having a  fair election—so reading them, understanding them, and applying them to elections provides a  virtual road map through the process.  

 Get Outside Help

 If your board doesn’t want to be personally responsible for administering the election, an outside  vendor can run the election. The vendor can handle a part of the event, such as  tallying up the votes, or they can run the entire election.  

 Election tabulation firms specialize in elections for co-ops, condos, unions,  associations and even some counties. “I’ve worked on terraces if the lobby is too hot, a local school or church if the  building doesn’t have a place to hold an election,” says one election pro. “I've even worked in a laundry room.”  

 The process a tabulation company goes through in handling a condo or homeowners  association election “depends on how much service the association wants,” says Brian Gittens of The Voting Group, an election tabulation firm with  offices in Fort Lauderdale and Queens, New York. “We can provide secure ballot paper, mail candidates’ pictures and bios to each shareholder, and provide cumulative tabulation (for  voting by shares) or one-unit one vote tabulation. We can provide voting  packages in many different languages.”  

 Companies such as Gittens’ typically will send out the nomination forms. Then the potential candidates  return the form within a specific time-frame, along with an information sheet  and/or a picture, he says. The information is then vetted by management along  with a list of eligible candidates. The company then creates a voting package,  which consists of an outer envelope, notice of annual meeting, a ballot (with  all candidates names on it in alphabetical order), candidates’ pictures and information sheet, an agenda, voting instructions, return mail  envelope with an address and signature line on the outside, and a secret ballot  envelope. The documents are then printed for all shareholders and unit owners,  says Gittens, and mailed to the appropriate address of record.  

 It’s definitely not a fair election if the people aren’t there to vote, so make sure to spread the word that it’s taking place. “It's one thing to just send out the required legal notice, but it's quite  another to promote and encourage participation,” says James Donnelly, president of Castle Group in Plantation. “We're so fortunate now, almost every association has email blasts, websites,  newsletters, there's no excuse for not getting participation.”  

 Once the word has been spread, it’s time to vote. How the votes are collected and counted depends on the election,  and on the community. Some communities across the country opt for machine  voting while others go for touch screens, scanners or paper ballots.  

 A No-Proxy System

 In Florida, the voting process for the board is quite specific with residents  using what is called a dual-envelope system, according to Direktor. “You are not required to put your name on the ballot. They are supposed to be put  in an inner unmarked envelope, which is then placed in an outer envelope on  which you are required to have your unit number and signature. This allows us  to verify that you're casting your own vote but at the same time allow you to  cast your vote secretly,” he says.  

 Your absence from your unit cannot be used as an excuse for not voting. “In Florida's condos and co-ops, you are not permitted to use proxies in the  election of your board,” Direktor explains. “You are required to use the dual envelope system and mail in your vote.” By definition, a proxy is a designation allowing someone else of your choosing  to vote in the election.  

 Count the Votes

 With all the ballots in, it’s time to tally up the votes and see if John Q. Smith won a seat on the board of  directors.  

 Companies like The Voting Group and others can do the counting—or if your community has a professional management company, like Donnelly's,  they can manage the election process. “You want independence, so no one running can be involved in the counting. In our  case, we always ask for volunteers from the membership to observe or  participate so that there's no question that the management company is doing it  properly. We always have two different people count the votes, to double check,” he says. “Many associations also have their attorney observe and attend.”  

 Typically recounts are not demanded or conducted unless someone wins an election  by a very small number of votes, or there is some suspicion that the count was  not properly conducted. Florida law spells out how and under what circumstances  election results may be challenged, and when election monitors or ombudspersons  can be called in to assist. (see sidebar)  

 Even when elections are contentious or stressful, the mantra repeated over and  over by both management and legal professionals is that the key thing is to get  people involved and invested in the administration of their community.  

 Just as in a national or state election, one person’s vote might mean the difference between having a policy enacted or a new board  put into place. For that reason, it's vitally important to cast your votes  wisely and be a part of the democratic process in your building community.    

 Lisa Iannucci is a freelance writer for The South Florida Cooperator and other  publications. Editorial Assistant Maggie Puniewska contributed to this article.  

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  • Our annual elections are next month. The current board wants to do it via virtual meeting, Zoom. Can they do this or must they have an actual meeting and election? If it is legal, how do we get this done via Zoom.