Online Elections: Are Members Voting 'No Thanks'?

Volume 29 Number 5

By

As the technology for conducting secure, anonymous online elections continues to improve, some bar associations that have taken the lead in using Internet voting are finding that the cost savings and increased voter turnout they envisioned have not yet appeared.

“We had high hopes for it when we implemented it, and it works beautifully. We just can’t get our members to use it,” says Gayle Baker, membership director for the State Bar of Georgia.

The SBG first used the system, developed by Election Services Corp. (formerly elections.com), about five years ago, Baker says. Association bylaws require that paper ballots be distributed for all bar elections. Because of higher printing and postage costs, the bar hoped to get enough people to switch to online voting to be able to justify eliminating the paper requirement.

“We had hoped by this point to have 50 to 60 percent of the members [who vote] voting online, but we can’t get that to happen,” Baker says. Elections average less than 20 percent of voting members doing so online, she notes.

The system is designed to make it easy for members to use electronic voting. They go to the SBG Web site and can view biographies and photos of the candidates. Entering a member number and an ID printed on the paper ballot they receive brings them to a customized online ballot that contains elections they are eligible to vote in, based on the district in which they live.

“The people who use it, love it,” Baker says. As for those who don’t, Baker theorizes that they find it easier to deal with the paper ballot when they first take it out of the envelope. “I think it’s just a matter of not taking the time to [vote online]. The majority are computer literate, and they use our Web site. No one has ever expressed any concerns about it.”

While the numbers have been increasing each year, online ballots still account for only about 15 percent of votes cast in elections at the Florida Bar, according to Tina Ruffin, assistant to the president, who administers the bar’s elections. Overall turnout—both paper and online—is about 25 percent of those eligible to vote, Ruffin says.

The bar sends paper ballots that have a PIN that members can use to vote online. They also can learn more about the candidates on the Web site. The Florida Bar, which also uses ESC to handle its elections, spends about $5,000 more to offer both paper ballots and online voting than it used to cost just to print and distribute paper ballots, Ruffin says.

The bar began to conduct online elections “to keep up with technology,” Ruffin explains. While the long-term hope is to someday do away with paper ballots, for now, the bar expects to continue offering an online and paper mix.

The low online voter turnout is not what ESC has experienced in other companies, says Chairman and CEO Mel Schrieberg. “We’ve seen the reverse,” he says. “When we provide an entity with the capability for online voting, the adoption rate is pretty high.” Schrieberg says associations may need to promote the feature more extensively to their members.

At the District of Columbia Bar, the percentage of online voters was down in 2004, according to Cynthia G. Kuhn, director of communications. After jumping from 17 percent in 2002 (the first year online voting was offered as an option) to 19.5 percent in 2003, e-voting fell to 12.5 percent in 2004. Kuhn does not know why the percentage had dropped.

The DCB’s bylaws also require the sending of paper ballots, so the bar has not saved money in that area, Kuhn says. Where there have been savings is in tabulation, since those votes that are cast online can be automatically tabulated by the election management software, rather than counted by hand. That software was designed by David Simms, the DCB’s interactive services supervisor.

Some see savings

Other associations have noticed some of the savings and increased turnout promised by online voting. The Austin Bar Association switched to e-voting in 2003, and saw a 50 percent increase in turnout, according to Executive Director DeLaine Ward.

Of the Austin bar’s 3,800 members, 3,100 have provided e-mail addresses to the association, Ward says. Those members are contacted by e-mail informing them of how to vote. Those without e-mail addresses on file are sent a postcard inviting them to either submit an address, or come to the bar center to cast a paper ballot.

The bar saved $2,500 on a judicial evaluation that had previously cost $7,600 just for postage and printing, Ward says. There are still costs for software and tabulation. The bar uses BallotBox, an election management system developed by Austin-based Collaborare.

The Louisiana State Bar Association has also seen a benefit from conducting online elections. The bar—which recently switched from Election Services Corp. to VR Election Services to cut costs—saves money in reduced printing costs by putting candidate biographies online, according to Ramona K. Meyers, executive assistant and manager of elections. The LSBA also saves money and staff time by having ballots tabulated out-of-house. “I would spend a full day here scanning them in” to an optical character recognition system so they could be counted by computer, Meyers says.

 

Online voting resources

Though some bar members have been slow to respond, the field of online voting is a growing one, as more associations and companies hope to reduce costs and improve turnout and efficiency in conducting their elections.

Companies that have made inroads with bar associations include: | Election Services Corp. (www.electionservicescorp.com). Based in Garden City, N.Y., and formerly known as elections.com, ESC has handled 6,500 elections involving 32,000,000 people, without any security problems, says Chairman and CEO Mel Schrieberg.

As with the other companies featured here, ESC handles elections on an outsourced basis, so associations do not have to buy extra software. The companies all handle mixed elections, where some people vote by paper or telephone, and others vote online. All votes go directly to the companies, which return the tallies to the association.

ESC considers its security features to be state of the art, with intrusion detection and firewalls among the features it uses to protect its databases.

When considering cost, Schrieberg says associations can expect ESC’s services to “match or be less than what they currently pay” for traditional elections. And as associations migrate from paper to full Internet elections, costs will be reduced substantially, he says.

Pricing depends on a number of factors, including the complexity of the election and size of the association. Prices generally run from 70 cents to $2 per member. | ElectionsOnline (www.electionsonline.us). ElectionsOnline was founded by David Simms, interactive services supervisor for the District of Columbia Bar. After designing the election software for the DCB, Simms expanded his scope and is now marketing Evote to other associations and companies.

Noting that security concerns are the biggest obstacle to getting more people to participate in online elections, Simms focused his programming efforts on designing a system that can be relied upon. While noting that “there is no such thing as 100 percent foolproof security,” Simms says Evote is as secure as an online database system can be: “If you understand what the vulnerabilities are and you take measures to address them, you’re going to be safe.”

Also adding to the security of online elections is that members of the general public, including hackers, are unlikely to know there’s an election going on, or where to find it on the Web. “There is some security through obscurity,” Simms notes, adding that he doesn’t think online elections for U.S president or other U.S. elected officials would be a good idea.

Pricing depends on the size of the association. For those with 7,000 members or fewer, costs range from 50 cents to 76 cents per eligible voter. For more than 7,000 members, pricing starts at $1,750 total. | Collaborare (www.collaborare-soft.com). When a past president of the Austin Bar Association wanted to introduce Internet voting as a way to increase turnout, attorney Brian Burgess wrote a program to handle the election. He later teamed with another programmer to create BallotBox, Collaborare’s entry in the online voting business.

BallotBox uses a voter’s e-mail address to make sure that each voter votes only once. The program works with the association’s database to verify information about members such as name and address, Burgess says.

BallotBox can report a list of who voted, after the election is over. “We know that you voted, but your vote is encrypted, so we can’t tell who you voted for,” he says.

Associations can purchase BallotBox services for one election or poll, or buy a package that allows for unlimited polls for a year. Burgess declined to discuss pricing.

 

Is it safe?

Representatives of the election management companies interviewed agreed on the potential security problems such systems face. They include: | Possible interception of online votes as they are transmitted from the voter to the Web site. Most programs now use an encryption system, similar to what e-commerce sites such as Amazon.com offer, to make sure that if, in the unlikely event someone “taps” the connection between voter and Web site, they will not be able to decipher the information they receive, or tamper with it to change the submitted vote. | Submitting multiple votes. A voter might click on the Submit button, and then accidentally or intentionally click on the browser’s Back button, and click on Submit again. The voting software needs to guard against this by allowing only the first vote submitted to be counted, and locking out all others. | Tampering with votes by those who tally them. The databases are protected in such a way that even the staff of the election management companies cannot change votes without being detected.

—DK

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