“The greatest lesson for democracies to learn is for the majority to give to the minority a full, free opportunity to present their side of the case, and then for the minority, having failed to win a majority to their views, gracefully to submit and to recognise the action as that of the entire organisation, and cheerfully to assist in carrying it out until they can secure its repeal.”
— Henry Martyn Robert
Henry Martyn Robert was the person who, in the 1870s, created Robert’s Rules of Order as a set of parliamentary guidelines that are still used for US parliamentary procedure today. The latest edition of Robert’s Rules was published in September 2020: Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised. Although a number of tweaks have been made through the years, the fundamentals of Robert’s Rules are still centred around democracy, impartiality and fairness.
As a result of Robert’s focus on democracy, voting is an enormous part of Robert’s Rules. There are plenty of voting processes and rules in place to ensure that all votes are fair and representative of the majority. In this article, we are going to cover Robert’s Rules of Order for voting, and everything you need to know about them.
Voting according to Robert’s Rules
Under Robert’s Rules, voting should work as follows:
“If the question is undebatable, or debate has been closed by order of the assembly, the chair, immediately after stating the question, puts it to vote, only allowing time for members to rise if they wish to make a motion of higher rank.”
First of all, it’s important to understand the difference between undebatable and debatable motions, as outlined below.
Undebatable motions are motions that don’t need debating. These can come in the form of unanimous (or assumed) consent, or quick yae and nae voting, without the need for a time-consuming debate beforehand.
If a member raises a privileged motion such as a question of privilege that it’s too loud in the room to hear what the chair is saying, this isn’t debatable.
Debatable motions are motions that do need debating. This is when a general consensus isn’t achieved and a wider discussion is necessary before the motion gets put to a vote. Forms of debatable motions include:
- Main motions
- Motions to postpone indefinitely
- Motions to amend
- Motions to commit
- Motions to postpone to a certain time
- Motions to appeal
- Motions to request to be excused from duty
- Motions to rescind or amend
- Motions to reconsider.
Although, in some of the above cases, discussion and debate can be limited.
Procedure for taking a vote
Once the main motion or question has been debated or acknowledged as undebatable, the chair then states the main question and puts it to a vote.
The chair typically says,
“Are you ready for the question?”
If no one asks for the floor after a short pause, the question then goes to a vote. If someone does ask for the floor and has more to say (following the normal rules of debate), then the chair needs to wait until the debate has finished and then they can ask again.
Following the vote (we’ll talk about the various forms of voting shortly), the chair must then announce the results of the vote clearly by saying
“The ayes/naes have it, and the resolution is adopted”
For the chair to announce the vote properly, they must:
- Say whether the motion is carried or lost (depending on the vote)
- Explain the result of the vote
- Ask the assembly what the immediate pending question/pending business is as a result of the vote.
This ensures that the results of the vote are clear to everyone and that the effect of the vote is clearly labelled. Voting is a key piece of Robert’s Rules and, as such, is an important part of chairing a meeting as the chair is the person who must make sure everyone gets to have their say.
Who gets to vote
The rules around who can vote are relatively simple, with a couple of exceptions where a chairman or presiding officer can/can’t vote. The main rule around voting is around quorums.
|A quorum is “the minimum number of members of an assembly or society that must be present at any of its meetings to make the proceedings of that meeting valid”.|
If the quorum is not there at the outset of the meeting, then votes taken in the absence of a quorum are null and void, unless:
- The vote is made to establish a quorum
- The meeting is fixing a time to adjourn, in the absence of a quorum
- They are adjourning or there’s a vote on adjournment
- The vote is to take a recess or a break.
Can the chair vote?
Because of the aim for the chairman or presiding officer to be completely impartial, it’s not a good practice for the chairperson to vote. However, the chair can vote if:
- The vote is via a secret ballot or anonymous.
- The individual vote of the chair would affect the result. Note that the chair doesn’t have to vote in this scenario, but they can.
- The meeting is for a small board or committee of fewer than 12 members. In the case of small or ‘informal’ meetings, the chair can always vote.
Ways the vote can be taken
There are various ways that the vote can be taken under Robert’s Rules. Most of them are applicable for votes in person but some are suitable for remote assemblies, too.
|Vote type||In-person or remote?|
|Viva voce (by voice)||In-person|
|Vote by rising||In-person|
|Vote by ballot||In-person|
|Vote by mail||Remote|
|Vote by email||Remote|
|Vote by unanimous consent||In-person|
|Roll call voting||In-person|
|Absentee voting||Remote (by proxy who is in person)|
When consulting the above table, keep in mind that this generally applies to in-person meetings. Robert’s Rules have been adapted for electronic meetings.
Taking a vote by voice (viva voce)
Voice vote or ‘viva voce’ is the most common (and customary) method for voting. The presiding officer or chairman simply asks the assembly “All those in favour say aye” and “All those opposed say no”. This is one of the more efficient methods of voting under Robert’s Rules and is usually quite straightforward. It’s important that the negative vote is always asked for as well as the positive note to keep it fair and to allow everyone to cast their vote.
However, if the vote is close, the chairman can retake the vote in another method such as by rising or by show of hands if this is easier to measure.
Taking a vote by rising (standing)
Put simply, a rising vote is voted on by asking voters to stand. “All those in favour rise”. Then, “All those opposed rise”, followed by requests to be seated once counted. In smaller groups, taking a vote by show of hands is sufficient.
Taking a vote by ballot
Voting by ballot is a good solution for anonymous voting or voting without disclosures on who voted for what. A ballot is usually a piece of paper with two options, for or against the main motion. There are two types of ballot votes:
- Secret (anonymous)
- Signed (if secrecy isn’t necessary — ideal for voting by mail).
These are then counted, and the chairman announces the vote.
Taking a vote by mail
Similarly to ballot voting, voting by mail is also done by members putting their preferences on a piece of paper from the organisation.
If the ballot is secret, the procedures from the organisation are as follows:
- Send the ballot with two envelopes: one for the ballot, one for sending. The member must sign the outside of the inner envelope to ensure that each member has cast their vote once. The outer envelope is sent back (with the inner envelope and ballot inside it) to the person responsible for counting the ballots.
- All ballots stay unopened until the ballot counters count the vote. The signature is checked, and all ballots are put into a ‘receptacle’. Once all are opened and in the receptacle, the ballots can be counted.
The result of this vote should be in the minutes and official agenda of the next regular meeting (and special meeting if one happens in the interim), but you should also send an announcement to members so they’re aware of the way the vote went.
Taking a vote by email
Voting by email is an efficient way of voting, and suitable for remote meetings. However, email votes can’t be done anonymously. When using this method, the ballot counter or organisation secretary should email each member individually and the members should reply. The replies should then be printed, put to one side and counted once all have been received.
If you want to enable online voting…
It’s best to use a board portal such as iBabs. This enables you to not only take anonymous votes online but also to conduct your meeting and manage all important documents on one platform.
Taking a vote by unanimous consent or general consent
The most efficient way of voting is by unanimous or general consent. This is for when it’s clear that there is little need for debate or that most are in favour of a motion. The chairman can simply ask if there are any objections to the motion. If there are none, then the motion carries.
Absentee voting is for when those who should vote can’t physically attend the meeting. However, it’s still important that the quorum is present and that decisions are only made by those in attendance — absentee voting should be used in limited circumstances.
In this case, voting by proxy could be appropriate - this is when a member gives another member power to vote on their behalf. However, proxy voting can cause problems and realistically isn’t consistent with the fundamentals of Robert’s Rules about non-transferable votes.
However, absentee voting can be an acceptable solution in votes taken by mail or email, as no one is in attendance.
Roll call voting
A roll call vote is mainly used in situations where members represent constituencies. It’s important that the constituents know how their delegate voted. Each assembly has different bylaws around how and when this is ordered.
Winning the vote
Now that we’ve covered the various methods of voting, it’s important to look at what counts as winning the vote. This can change due to various organisational bylaws and which type of vote is used, so be sure to check yours where relevant.
The majority rules
The majority vote is more than half of the votes cast by those present and voting. Sometimes, the organisation’s rules will have their own definition of what counts as a majority, such as a majority of those present or the majority of all members.
A two-thirds vote
Some organisations and some motions require a two-thirds vote to pass. Again, this is two-thirds of those present and voting unless otherwise specified, and doesn’t include abstentions. This ensures that votes aren’t passed by slim majorities and that the votes cast are more reflective of the group as a whole. Some main motions always require a two-thirds vote, including:
- To close, limit or extend debate
- To suspend the rules
- To amend the constitution and bylaws
- To close nominations
- To remove an officer or expel a member
- To object to the consideration of a motion.
A three-fourths vote
Some organisations choose to use a three-fourths vote (also known as a supermajority) as their passing majority. Again, this is of those members both present and voting.
The tie vote
Tie votes mean that both sides have the same amount of votes. In this scenario, a vote is considered lost through the lack of a majority. If the vote is a tie and has included the presiding officer already (such as in the case of a secret ballot) then this is a lost motion. However, if you’re electing an officer, you’ll need to re-ballot until there is a majority.
If it’s not a ballot vote and the presiding officer or chairman hasn’t already voted, they can decide whether to cast the deciding vote or to reserve their vote and remain impartial.
A plurality vote or relative majority vote is where there is no majority on votes cast but one option has more votes than another. This isn’t relevant to motions where there are two sides, but for votes such as elections where multiple officers may be up for election or a presiding officer needs to be voted on.
If there are four candidates - A, B, C and D and candidate A receives 32% of the vote, B 27%, C 25% and D 16%, candidate A would win the plurality vote, even though they didn’t receive an overall majority vote (51%+).
After the vote
After the vote, it’s the chairman’s responsibility to announce the results and the effects of the vote. For example, if the main motion was “we build a new public park in Greenwich”, the process after debate has completed would be:
- Presenting the question
- Counting the affirmative votes (by whichever means)
- Counting the negative votes
- Announcing the adoption or loss of the motion based on the vote as follows:
“The ayes have it, and the motion to build a new public park in Greenwich is adopted. What is the immediately pending new business?”
At this point, members and officers can outline the action points of what needs to happen next.
Doubting the result of the vote
If you doubt the result of a vote, you’ll need to quickly challenge this by raising a motion before the debate on the next business as a result of the vote begins. You can ask for one of the three following options:
|Challenging a vote||What it means||How to do it|
|Calling for a division of the assembly||If you don’t think there was a discernible winner from ‘ayes’ and ‘naes’ in a viva voce (for example), you can ask for a division which means the chairman must conduct a rising vote or show of hands instead.||Stand up and say “Division”. This isn’t debatable, doesn’t need to be seconded and doesn’t have to be voted on. Any individual member can do this.|
|Retaking the vote by a different method||You can ask the chairman to order a counted vote such as by ballot, rising or a show of hands to make sure a majority has been reached.||Ask for the floor, and ask the chairman for a retake.|
|Recounting the vote||You can ask for a recount of the vote if you think it was too close to call.||Ask for the floor, and ask the chairman to recount the vote.|
We’ve put together some Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) and reminders when it comes to voting and Robert’s Rules of Order or RONR.
Does a member have to vote?
Under Robert’s Rules, members don’t have to vote and can abstain from voting if they wish. Abstention votes shouldn’t be counted or asked for, as it’s a member’s decision whether or not to vote. This is unless you’re an elected official or delegate for constituents, who should know if you chose not to vote for or against a motion.
What is a vote of no confidence?
A vote of no confidence is a statement or vote about whether a person in a position of responsibility (in an organisation or parliament) is fulfilling their obligations or fit to hold their position. While Robert’s Rules themselves don’t mention votes of no confidence, you can use the methodology to support such a vote.
How many votes do you need for a quorum?
A quorum is the minimum number of voting members who must be present to conduct business in the name of an assembly, organisation or group. The number of members to establish a quorum varies and can be a percentage of the total membership or a fixed number. However, of the quorum, majority voting rules apply. Any votes made without a quorum in place aren’t binding to the organisation.
Which motion requires a majority vote?
Outside of undebatable motions, all debatable motions require at minimum a majority vote. However, others require a minimum of a two-thirds vote such as any that limit or eliminate member’s rights such as limiting debate, closing debate or expelling a member.
Is it true that once a quorum has been established, it continues to exist no matter how many members leave during the course of the meeting?
If you lose quorum, it’s important to verify this with the chair by asking for a Point of Order. You could say “Point of Order - I believe we are no longer a quorum” or “Point of Order - Do we still have a quorum?”. Once a quorum is no longer present, anything after the point that this has been realised has to stop. A guest speaker can still speak or announcements can still be made, but the meeting is no longer valid and votes can’t be had at this point.
To summarise, there are lots of options under Robert’s Rules of Order for voting, but fundamentally they are straightforward. While bylaws and organisational rules can complicate things, there are a few basics to remember:
- Votes are only valid under a quorum
- The chairperson generally doesn’t vote (except in secret ballots or to break a tie)
- The majority wins.
If you can remember these basics, your understanding of the rest of Robert’s Rules of Order for voting should soon come!