Most U.S. voters in November's presidential election will head to polling centers or send in paper absentee ballots, an election tradition relatively untouched by modern technology. And when University of Michigan researchers easily hacked into an experimental online voting platform for military personnel stationed overseas in 2010, the concept of online voting seemed even more remote for U.S. elections.
But for associations, advances in technology and stronger security options make switching to online voting for elections a smart move both economically and to enhance member convenience.
The American Anthropological Association is a case in point.
In 2007, after the District of Columbia changed regulations to allow associations to hold votes online, AAA stopped shipping its board of directors election packet—a 64-page candidate-statement book and four-page ballot—to 10,000-plus members worldwide. Kim Baker, section and governance coordinator, says members sign in to AAA's website and vote directly, avoiding a security risk of separate emails with different usernames and passwords.
"We are able to reach a whole other level of international members that we could not reach before because, when you had to mail all these voting materials out to Timbuktu, they didn't have time to mail them back," Baker says. Plus, she adds, online voting through AAA's third-party vendor is less expensive than designing, printing, and shipping the election packets to each member, and voter turnout went up about 25 percent.
Michael Tuteur, CEO of Votenet Solutions, Inc., says top-notch security and fraud protection should be the highest priority in online voting for associations. "Balloting is seen as a pillar of democracy in an association," he says. "People get very concerned if they think their vote may be compromised."
System security is a prime concern for the Special Libraries Association, which has been holding board elections and other votes online since 2005, says Jeff Leach, director of marketing and exhibits.
"There was one instance where there was a mistake on our side, and we had to change one question, and it was a very long process to get the vote stopped," Leach says. "It was bad for us that it happened, but it was reassuring to know that it wasn't easy to make a change. That was reflective of the level of security of the system."
Tuteur cautions associations against using software designed for surveys as their election voting software. "Survey software is wonderful for simple polling or voting that's not binding, but there are real dangers to using those technologies because they may have limited security or may lack the ability to withstand an audit," he says.