Technical Guidance on Virtual Voting for Online Congregational Meetings

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(Reviewed September 1, 2021)

Perhaps it’s time for the congregation’s annual meeting. Perhaps you are needing an all-congregational vote on a time-sensitive matter, like calling a minister, and the local pandemic restrictions or board safety policies prevent you from gathering in person. Be sure to read our guidance on the legalities of holding congregational meetings virtually. We still need to ensure each member gets to cast a vote and is able to practice our fifth principle. To that end, you may want to mail out a paper ballot to those who do not have internet access or own a smart phone/tablet.

Larry Stritof, Manager of App Development at our UUA, shares these options on how we can do congregational voting online:

  • Vote by filling out a form. Consider keeping congregational votes as simple as possible by using a form builder like Wufoo or JotForm to create a form to collect the responses. You want something that will allow you to set it so that the users completing the form will get an email with their submission as a way being transparent about what was recorded.
  • Vote by voice. The host can unmute all participants. The moderator will call for all "Ayes," Nays," and "Abstentions." A determination will be made whether it's too close to call for a count. If so, you can either go with the other options listed here, or go through the roll and unmute each person to tally their vote. This method may also be used for participants calling in who don't have access to the Zoom poll or raising hand function below as well. I would not recommend this for anything larger than a small or mid-sized congregation.
  • Vote with a poll in Zoom. This can work, but it’s tricky. First, you’d need every participant to have a registered account and not just the standard “guest” account if you want to be able to download or audit the poll results. Second, if you have more than one member in a household, you’ll need to find a way for each member to vote. (This can be handled by running an in-meeting Zoom poll with multiple “questions,” the questions being the same, but for different persons in the household. It then involves adding the answers to those questions together). Here’s a guide to polling in Zoom. Here's how they did it at a recent MidAmerica Regional Assembly.
  • Vote with hand-raising or "reactions button" in Zoom. There is a button to virtually raise one’s hand while in a zoom meeting. You could call for yeas or nays this way. It would also require multiple rounds for multi-member households unless you found a way for additional voters to call in to the Zoom meeting on phones and raise their hands with *9.
  • Vote anonymously. If anonymous voting is needed, consider election systems like Simply Voting or Election Buddy. These systems are designed to be secure and auditable by the individual voters. This of course comes at a price. You can also vote anonymously in Zoom using the in-meeting polling feature (see above about offering multiple rounds). Zoom’s hand-raising feature is not anonymous.
  • Set things up so you can audit results. To ensure there is no voter fraud (purposeful or accidental), you can do a few things to audit the results. One is to collect an email address or other data point that is going to be unique to the individuals. After you close the voting, audit the results looking for duplicates, submissions from people you don't know or are not authorized to vote, and check to see if the total number of votes is in line with your list of active voting members. You can also do this by password protecting your meeting whether it’s video or phone call.
  • Make your meeting accessible. There may be accessibility issues for some users who don’t use email, have an older computer that cannot do a video conference, or live with disabilities that make this work difficult. My recommendation is to work with the individuals and find ways you can let their voice be heard. This could include allowing the individual to email their vote to the group counting them; setting up a conference line; or run for a live transcript of the conversation.
  • Reduce interference by unknown third parties. It’s a terrible security policy, but there is “Security through obscurity” with these setups, meaning you are unlikely going to have interference from unknown third parties since only insiders and members will know what system and process you are using for your vote. Don’t post details of your voting process and meeting information online for the public to see. You may want to set up a waiting room and have participants type in their full name to make sure they are voting members. Think of it as a sign-in table before the annual meeting is held. Also, make sure you set up the meeting to turn off the “screen share” option for everyone except your scheduled presenters. During the pandemic some unknown third parties have disrupted online worship services by sharing their screens.
  • Make it 100% virtual or 100% in-person. Hybrid meetings like the UUA’s annual General Assembly are very complex to run, and require staffing and support beyond what most congregations are able to offer.

At the end of the day, if voting is reduced to having to count every ballot because it's close to 50/50, then the congregation is probably too polarized to move forward. I would recommend tabling the motion until you can further process the question at hand.

About the Authors

Larry Stritof

I have worked for the UUA since 2005. The first five were spent in Stewardship and Development as Campaign Specialist and later as Legacy Gifts Manager, during which I worked on the Now is the Time capital campaign and the Gulf Coast Relief Fund. But my real love has always been technology.

Jonipher Kūpono Kwong

The Rev. Dr. Jonipher Kūpono Kwong currently serves as Interim Senior Minister at Fourth Universalist Society in New York, NY.

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