Robert's Rules of Order
Robert's Rules of Order is the most commonly-used manual of parliamentary procedure in the United States. Editions published since 1970 are referred to as Robert's Rules of Order Newly Revised, or RONR. The most recent edition, the 10th, was published in 2000.
Voting methods mentioned by name in RONR
RONR mentions several voting systems by name. These include:
- The majority vote (RONR [10th ed.], p. 387);
- The plurality vote (RONR [10th ed.], p. 391-392);
- Preferential voting (RONR [10th ed.], p. 411); and
- Cumulative voting (RONR [10th ed.], p. 429).
Majority rule is a basic principle of parliamentary law as set forth in RONR. In multi-candidate elections, RONR encourages the use of repeated balloting until one candidate receives a majority. This type of system can result in many rounds of voting, as happened in the United States presidential election, 1800 when the election was thrown into the United States House of Representatives.
The manual discourages plurality voting. "A plurality that is not a majority never chooses a proposition or elects anyone to office except by virtue of a special rule previously adopted. If such a rule is to apply to the election of officers, it must be prescribed in the bylaws. The rule that a plurality shall elect is unlikely to be in the best interests of the average organization." (RONR [10th ed.], p. 392, l. 2-7).
Preferential voting is mentioned in recent editions of RONR. While RONR advocates the use of the majority vote in situations in which an assembly is physically gathered together, it views preferential voting as superior to plurality in other situations. Specifically, the book notes, "In an international or national society where the election is conducted by mail ballot, a plurality is sometimes allowed to elect officers, with a view to avoiding the delay and extra expense that would result from additional balloting under these conditions. A better method in such cases is for the bylaws to prescribe some form of preferential voting" (RONR [10th ed.], p. 392, l. 8-13).
RONR mentions cumulative voting. The book states, "A minority group, by coordinating its effort in voting for only one candidate who is a member of the group, may be able to secure the election of that candidate as a minority member of the board. However, this method of voting, which permits a member to transfer votes, must be viewed with reservation since it violates a fundamental principle of parliamentary law" (RONR [10th ed.], p. 429, l. 23-29).
Voting systems not mentioned by name
RONR repeatedly discourages runoffs on the grounds that they may prevent a compromise candidate from emerging. The book states, "The nominee receiving the lowest number of votes is never removed from the ballot unless the bylaws so require, or unless he withdraws – which, in the absence of such a bylaw, he is not obligated to do. The nominee in lowest place may turn out to be a "dark horse" on whom all factions may prefer to agree" (RONR [10th ed.], p. 426-427).
The book devotes a subheading to the topic:
- Impropriety of Limiting Voting in the Election to the Two Leading Candidates. In some organizations using the nominating ballot, an attempt is made to limit the voting on the electing ballot to the two nominees for each office receiving the highest number of votes on the nominating ballot. This – or any attempt to limit the number of candidates for an office to two, by whatever method they are nominated – is an unfortunate practice and should be avoided. Often the two leading candidates for a position will represent two different factions, and division within the organization may be deepened by limiting the election to them. On the other hand, it may be possible to unite the members if the assembly has the choice of a compromise candidate" (RONR [10th ed.], p. 423, l. 11-24).
An example of the phenomenon to which RONR refers occurred in the 2006 United Nations Security Council election. After 47 rounds of deadlocked voting, Guatemala and Venezuela dropped their bids for a seat on the UNSC and agreed to back Panama.
RONR does not mention approval voting. This system is not allowed by default. While the manual allows a voter to choose fewer candidates than there are offices to be filled, "If he votes for too many candidates for a given office, however, that particular section of the ballot is illegal, because it is not possible for the tellers to determine for whom the member desired to vote" (RONR [10th ed.], p. 402, l. 8-11).
How to adopt alternate voting systems
The majority vote is the default voting method for an organization that has adopted RONR as its parliamentary authority. However, an organization can select a different voting method by adopting a bylaw provision or special rule of order to that effect (RONR [10th ed.], p. 391, l. 20-25). An organization's bylaws usually prescribe the procedure for their amendment. A special rule of order can be adopted by either (a) previous notice and a two-thirds vote or (b) a vote of a majority of the entire membership of the organization (not just those in attendance at the meeting) (RONR [10th ed.], p. 116, l. 27-29).
When attempting to change bylaws, it is important to note that the choice of words can have unintended consequences. For instance, a requirement that a candidate be elected by a "majority of those present" has the effect of causing abstaining from voting to be equivalent to voting against a candidate (RONR [10th ed.], p. 390, l. 13-24). It may be advisable to consult with a parliamentarian before attempting to adopt a new voting method. In addition, if the electorate is likely to be unfamiliar with the proposed voting system, some education beforehand is advisable to avoid confusion.
While it is possible to adopt a different voting system by adopting or amending the rules, it is probably impossible to do so by suspending the rules. While certain rules of procedure contained in the bylaws can be suspended, this is not true in the cases of rules which embody fundamental principles of parliamentary law and rules protecting absentees or a basic right of the individual member (RONR [10th ed.], p. 254-255). According to Paul McClintock, PRP, an election cannot be held by plurality if the bylaws are silent on the issue.
- Question 4: Can an election be held by plurality vote when the bylaws are silent of the matter?, McClintock, Paul, PRP.
- Robert's Rules of Order Newly Revised, 10th ed., 2000.