How to run a virtual election for your troop, crew or ship’s youth leaders

Senior patrol leaders don’t stop leading just because the pandemic has forced troops to hold meetings online. Ditto the way we elect those senior patrol leaders.

Unit elections can — and should! — continue virtually until it’s safe to resume in-person meetings.

In a unit election, Scouts or Venturers choose who will lead their Scouts BSA troop, Venturing crew or Sea Scout ship for the next six to 12 months. Patrols hold patrol leader elections, too.

As it turns out, it’s both easy and appropriate to move the voting process online. The catch is that these votes typically are secret, meaning asking Scouts to raise their hands while on a Zoom call might not be appropriate.

Once you’ve figured out the technology side, the rest is business as usual. You can follow the guidance in the Scouts BSA Senior Patrol Leader Handbook and Patrol Leader Handbook.

Here’s a comprehensive guide.

Step 1: Decide whether your Scouts will vote live or asynchronously.

Your first decision, which should be made in consultation with your unit’s current youth leaders, is whether you’ll hold the vote live or asynchronously.

Live: Real-time unit leader elections are best because they allow you to tabulate results instantly and hold a runoff, if necessary, right away. You’re probably already meeting via Zoom, Google Hangouts, Skype or another videoconferencing platform, so it makes sense to hold your vote that way, too.

Asynchronously: If technology or scheduling hurdles make it impossible for everyone to be on the same videoconference, you can follow the same steps below with a few modifications. Instead of Scouts giving speeches in real time (Step 3), they can record these speeches and post them for free to YouTube, using an unlisted link. Then you’d give each Scout or Venturer a certain amount of time to review those speeches and cast their vote.

Youth Protection note: Remember that the BSA prohibits any one-on-one interaction between an adult leader and a Scout — in person, online, through a web conference, over the phone, via text or in any other form. Learn more here.

Step 2: Choose a voting method.

Start by helping your Scouts/Venturers understand different voting methods.

Does the Scout with the most votes win (plurality) or must the winner earn at least 50% plus one of all votes cast (majority)? (In a plurality election, one round of voting does the trick unless there’s a tie for first place. In a majority election, you may need a runoff if you have three or more candidates.)

And what about ranked-choice voting, which eliminates the need for a runoff by asking Scouts to rank every candidate instead of choosing only one person?

Spend a few minutes going over the differences, and let the Scouts decide which option to use.

“It’s an opportunity to show the benefits and disadvantages of the systems in use in politics,” says Jim Hilliard, a volunteer who shared his thoughts on Facebook.

Step 3: Determine a plan for giving speeches.

In all units, but especially newer ones where the young people are still getting to know each other, it’s smart to offer candidates the chance a speak about why they’re the best person for the job.

These short speeches can be delivered live via video chat or recorded in advance and posted online for Scouts to review.

Either way, consider asking your Scouts or Venturers to agree on a time limit for these speeches. One or two minutes should be plenty. This is especially important for units on a free or basic plan for their chosen videoconferencing platform. These free plans typically have a time limit for how long your meeting can last.

Step 4: Decide whether the vote will be secret.

In most units, voting is done through a secret ballot. While not required, secret ballots ensure that Scouts/Venturers choose the candidate they feel is best for the job — not necessarily the one who is most popular.

Also, consider the emotional impact of public voting. If a losing candidate receives just one or two votes, that person could have their feelings hurt. Remember that a Scout is kind.

Ultimately, the decision of how to vote should be made in concert with the Scouts themselves.

Step 5: Hold the vote.

If your Scouts choose public voting, this can be accomplished easily through a show of hands.

If your Scouts select secret voting, you’ll need to find a technology solution.

Some options include:

  • Straw Poll
    • Good: Free, requires no login/account creation by Scouts or the poll creator (the site uses IP duplication checking to make sure each Scout only votes once, which might be a problem in houses with more than one Scout)
    • Not as good: No way to hide the vote tally — it’s public and can be seen by all
  • Survey Monkey
    • Good: Free for up to 40 voters, customizable, simple setup, results can be hidden from troop if desired
    • Not as good: Setup takes longer, not free for troops with more than 40 Scouts
  • CIVS by Cornell University
    • Good: Great for ranked-choice voting, very customizable, ad-free
    • Not as good: A little complicated, only works with ranked-choice voting (not elections using simple plurality)
  • OpaVote
    • Good: Designed for elections (not just polls), meaning it feels more “official” and fun
    • Not as good: Only free for up to 25 voters
  • Election Buddy
    • Good: Designed for elections (not just polls), meaning it feels more “official” and fun
    • Not as good: Only free for up to 20 voters

Have you had success with voting sites not on this list? Leave a comment below.

What the Scouts BSA books say about elections, in general

Below, find excerpts about unit elections from the official books listed.

Senior Patrol Leaders Handbook

Each troop sets its own age, rank, and other qualification standards for its senior patrol leader, though these may be temporarily waived if a troop is newly organized. A senior patrol leader serves from one troop election to the next, usually for a period of six to 12 months.

In most troops, voting is done by secret ballot. All youth members of the troop are eligible to vote. The senior patrol leader of an established troop is often selected from among the most experienced Scouts of a certain age and rank. In a new troop or a troop without older members, Scouts are likely to choose as senior patrol leader someone they respect and believe will provide effective leadership.

The patrol leaders’ council may offer candidates for senior patrol leader the opportunity to appear before the troop to discuss their qualifications and reasons for seeking the office. This provides good practice for the candidates and enables those who do not know them well, younger Scouts in particular, to gain a better sense of what they propose to do for the troop.

Patrol Leaders Handbook

A patrol elects one of its members to be the patrol leader to provide the members with guidance and to represent them on the patrol leaders’ council. The qualifications required of patrol leader candidates (age, rank, etc.) are determined by each troop. Most troops hold patrol leader elections twice a year, though some may have elections more often. The voting process is usually done by secret ballot.

Upon election, the patrol leader then appoints members of the patrol to fill other patrol leadership positions that may include assistant patrol leader, quartermaster, grubmaster, and cheermaster.

Tips for all unit elections — virtual or in-person

These come from Scouting magazine’s Facebook community.

  • Keep the results of the secret vote secret — reveal only the winner. There’s no need to share with the Scouts whether the election was close or a landslide.
  • Let the Scouts have a say in the election process. “The more the adults interfere, the less involved the Scouts will be,” Jerry Judd writes, “and the less they will learn.”
  • Trust the Scouts’ decision. “The Scouts have sometimes elected leaders that I totally thought were unprepared, but by the time their term was over they were great leaders,” Frank Williams writes. “Proper mentoring and letting them lead goes a long way.”
About Bryan Wendell 3042 Articles
Bryan Wendell, an Eagle Scout, is the founder of Bryan on Scouting and a contributing writer.