And the Winner Is... Effectively Running a Co-op Board Election

No matter how a building's governing documents are worded, co-ops and condos have to hold board elections at regular intervals. More importantly, every effort must be made to let shareholders know when and where the elections will be held, how to participate, and what the results are. Running an election and tabulating the results, however, aren't the simplest things in the world.

Often the party that doesn't win lodges a formal protest and, after navigating the courts, might get a recount or even a new election. Results must be carefully and accurately tabulated, using everything from touch-screen technology to traditional lever machines. The building's bylaws say when it's time to hold an election and what the term limits will be. However, many co-ops and condos - seeking to avoid feuding parties and other improprieties - often rely on third-party tabulation services. These service providers, viewed as an impartial organization outside of the building community, hopefully are free from any building politics and conflicts of interest.

A Time to Vote

Management's role in the election process generally ends after sending out a letter to the shareholders - according to Brien Gittens, owner of The Voting Group, a voting tabulation service located in Queens, New York, but the matter of who conducts and oversees an actual election is debatable. What used to be the managing agent's responsibility was changed by tenants, many of whom felt it was a conflict of interest. "That's why they get private organizations," Gittens says. "It's a mixture of managing agent and private organizations."

Maralin Falik, director of election services for Election Services Corp. in Garden City, New York, says, "When we're helping with the election, we become the inspectors of the election, and we run the election." She says the board provides the listing of who actually owns the apartments and who is allowed to sign, and that they verify the proxy signatures against records held either in the management office or by the board.

"The managing agent really isn't part of the election," adds Earl Hurd, vice president of sales for Election Services. "They may facilitate it by providing space and information, and they may be represented because they may own some units in the building, but they are really not part of the election."

Gittens says an increasing number of co-ops and condos have turned to independent organizations during the past five to ten years. "These are usually contentious situations - everyone wants to win," he continues. "In order to stop people from accusing the next guy of cheating, it's better to cut the drama and get an outside, independent, nonpartisan organization to do it and get it over and done with."

Co-op or condo bylaws spell out the rules regarding annual meetings and term limits. Many use a "thirty-ten" policy, which limits notices to no more than 30 days and no later than 10 days before the annual meeting. Linda Gibbs, executive director of Honest Ballot Association, a Floral Park, New York-based tabulation service, says, "they usually send out a shareholder's letter, and it's usually about 10 to 15 days." She says the election process lasts about 30 days.

Gibbs adds that her firm would abort the election if cheating were suspected. However, buildings often try to carry out their own elections either to save money or because they've been doing it for so many years. She says boards often receive court orders, and "that means they've been contested and they've had problems, and then they call us to come in and take over their election, being an outside party."

Securing the Vote

The tabulation method depends on the organization - some offer paper ballots, secure Internet voting, and even secure voice mail. "In those situations, that information goes into a database and [is then] tabulated electronically," Gittens says.

"We tabulate the next day after the election," Gibbs adds. "We bring it back to the office and tally them, and we usually do a double-take on them." She says paper ballots go through a scanning machine, but with a touchtone machine, the printout comes out right away.

Even with all the high-tech equipment available, Gittens says lever voting machinery hasn't become obsolete. "It's outdated, but it's very accurate," he says. Touch-screen electronic voting - although slightly more expensive - contrary to popular belief is not more complicated than lever machines. The information filters into a database in the back of the machine, from which it can then be downloaded.

Falik says, "people become accustomed to voting a certain way, and we can accommodate any one of those. We specialize in helping people migrate to electronic voting, but we do everything from counting ballots manually, to the old pump machines, to touch-screen voting."

Tabulation firms employ several means to secure the integrity of the voting process. Gittens says his company insists on controlling the proxies, which they design and print in conjunction with the client and then mail out, after which they come back to his company's P.O. box. That way, he says, "We have a specific count of the amount of proxies that get sent out. When they return to our P.O. box, not only do we have a count of it, but the U.S. Post Office knows how much mail came back in for this particular time limit."

Gittens adds that his firm often deals with an election committee composed of nonpartisan shareholders. By dealing with a committee, he says, his company acts as the liaison between themselves and management. "No candidate can say that our organization is too close to management or the board," Gittens points out. "We try to keep that group out of it, put a buffer in the middle."

Impartiality is another advantage offered by independent tabulation companies. "None of us live there," Gittens confirms. He says they deliver the election machinery locked up the day before the election and that it leaves the day after. Another independent party clears the machinery and takes the numbers off.

"They really spend a lot of the shareholders' money for these elections if they have problems, and they go back into court again and again and again," Gibbs points out. "I think it's [necessary] to have an outsider run the elections."

We Need a Recount

Often one party, dissatisfied with the results, is convinced there was an error or, worse, that someone tampered with the results. Gittens says a recount usually is the end result of a contested election. First, the person who lodged the complaint has to go through the proper legal channels. However, he warns, "If it's found that there was no problem, whoever made the complaint pays for our legal and personnel bill."

Gibbs says a recount requires going through management and obtaining a court order. "If it's close, we redo it," she says. "If it's run properly and there's no question about who the winner is, then they actually file a complaint and it'll go to court." Redoing the election costs the co-op or condo money, but the outcome, Gibbs says, "really never changes."

Hurd recommends bringing a challenge to the attention of the governing body, of which the tabulation service is an instrument. They ensure that everything is done ethically and in compliance with the bylaws and state laws. "But we don't rule on challenges," he says.

Falik advises shareholders to demand that all of the ballots or proxies be impounded in the event of a conflict. However, she adds, "it's a difficult thing for someone to get done without going into court."

With so many checks and balances, manipulating election results is nearly impossible. "The only way you can manipulate a vote is if you manipulate the people in the building," says Gittens. He says the tabulation service cannot act as watchdogs. Ensuring the integrity of the process is the building election committee's responsibility. If illegalities occur, someone has to prove it. The election can then be called and redone, and the person found cheating could be disqualified. Punishments, Gittens adds, depend on the building's bylaws.

Shareholders Have a Right to Know

Shareholders are entitled to certain information at certain times. The tabulation organization, Gittens says, will get certified numbers at the end of the election, and the shareholders receive the data regarding how much each candidate received, as well as the winners and the losers. "What they won't get is who voted for whom," he adds.

He says the exact ballots and proxies are given out a year after the election. "We store it, we hold onto it for a year or two until their next election, and then we release last year's information for them to do whatever they want with it: destroy it, store it, whatever," Gittens says.

"It's privileged information," Gibbs adds. "If there was a court order, the judge or lawyers could see it."

Board elections have the potential to become an even more contentious event than the last presidential election. But by retaining the services of an independent tabulator, the shareholders and even the candidates themselves will be assured that someone other than the building's management is handling such a delicate process, and doing it right.

Michael McDonough is a freelance writer living on Long Island.

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