Can a chair vote?

Answers to questions submitted to Cagle's Parliamentary Procedure webpage.

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Can it be true?

We have set a precedent that the president only casts a vote to break a tie. Our new president has informed us that according to Robert's, the president may vote on any issue at any time.

Your precedent is not parliamentary law, but is an opinion of some of the members of the group, and in the interpersonal dynamics of meetings a factor to take into account. In Robert's Rules of Order Newly Revised, there are special rules for Boards and for Committees. What your new president said is quite correct, even if people are surprised by it (honestly, I am not being cute here--most people have only a superficial knowledge of parliamentary procedure and how boards are supposed to work is not widely known). Among the rules (which are listed as a Topic on my Parliamentary Procedure homepage), the Chair of a board meeting can make motions, speak on one side or the other on every motion, and vote. People often are surprised to hear this because they know some of the rules about impartiality of a chair in a huge assembly or plenary body meeting. All I can advise is that boards are different creatures and have their own special rules. In practice, because people sometimes feel a chair is being unfair if he/she votes, sometimes a chair has an informal rule of only voting when the vote would make a difference, i.e., to break a tie vote or to create a tie (which would defeat a motion).

Effect of chair voting

At my organizations meeting today we were voting on a motion. The chairman called for the ayes, nays and abstentions. The vote was 5,5,1 respectively. The chairman was asked to make the tiebreaking vote which was against the motion. 
Before the chairman voted, one person was asked to change his vote. It was ruled that he could not change his vote until after the chairman voted.
Is this correct?

The chair normally can cast a vote when his/her vote will affect the outcome of the voting. A member can change his/her vote at any time before the final result is announced.
In this case, whether the member changed his/her vote has no consequence.
A motion that receives a tie fails to pass. "Tie" is a concept more popular with the public than it is with parliamentarians. In a football game, a tie is neither a winner nor loser. But in voting, a tie has no meaning except that the motion does not receive a majority and therefore does not pass.
If the chair casts his/her vote as yes, then the motion would receive a majority and pass. If he/she voted no, it would not change the outcome because the motion already was in a state of not passing.
After the chair voted, the vote potentially was 6-5-1. If someone who voted yes changed his/her vote to no, then the final vote would be 5-6-1 and the motion would fail to pass. If an abstention was changed to no, then the vote would also result in the motion failing to pass.
Among other things, it doesn't matter whether the member got to change his/her vote before or after the chair voted. There is time for both to occur during the voting.
I hope these comments clarify the rules for you.

Board Chair Voting

The chair of the board is under the impression that the chairperson votes only in the case of a tie. The by-laws do not address this. Your web page suggests that this is not true. Where and how is this specified?

See Robert's Rules of Order Newly Revised, p. 476 ff, for special rules governing boards. In particular, "The chairman can speak in discussion without rising or leaving the chair; and, subject to rule or custom within the particular board . . . he can usually make motions and usually votes on all questions." The rules for boards and committees concerning the chair are different from the rules for plenary bodies or assemblies. However, because they are different doesn't mean people understand that they are different and know the "proper" rules. There is a widespread and popular belief (albeit incorrect) that no chairman ever votes, whereas in fact a chair has a right to vote and to even debate in a board. Note the wise advise from the authorities who wrote the Newly Revised version of Robert's, "subject to rule or custom within the particular board." If the chairman of a board has never voted and people believe he/she ought not to vote, then it is probably better to follow custom. My advice on this is generally for the chair to discuss this matter with the board in advance and at the beginning of his/her chairship so that everyone will have the same understanding of the "rules" in an "issue-free" environment. When controversy has stirred emotions, people get mad when the chairman says, "Well, take this and like it."

Why does the Chair of the House of Representatives not vote unless there is a tie?

Because the House of Representatives does not follow Robert's Rules of Order Newly Revised; it has its own rules. Beyond that, there is a general parliamentary practice using that as an informal rule: Although the chair can vote (actually, even in an assembly), it "preserves the impartiality of the chair" if the chair only votes which his/her vote would actually affect the outcome--that is, when the vote would have the effect of passing a motion or (when voting to create a tie) to defeat a motion. Each time the chair votes, it is sort of saying "Look which side I'm on." In any event, that practice is the custom in many groups, and occasionally built into law as part of the bylaws.

My goal is to have this person vote because, with other members absent, it will be very difficult to get a majority of the Board to vote together on anything and we need all the votes we can get. Suggestions?

Your rationale seems sensible to me. The clarification about the chair's voting prerogatives should be made as a general clarification and basis for everyone understanding what the chair's role is on the board. It is inadvisable to in any way tie this to a political rationale of getting enough votes on any specific issue.

Board Chair's Last Word and Closing Debate

In a club board setting, how would you handle a chair that uses the position to have the "last word" in a debate? More frequently than not, I find chairpeople using their position to "preach from the pulpit" or to impose their personal views to close a debate, when in fact, by the nature of their speech, it prolongs the debate. To make things worse they will not allow the debate to continue and they will call any member attempting to respond to their speech out of order. If you could give me the benefit of your experience on this subject, I appreciate it. Thank you.

You won't like this answer, but here it is: In Robert's Rules of Order Newly Revised, in a board, the chair does has the authority to debate, make motions, and so forth. The idea that a chair doesn't debate relates to rules for assemblies or plenary bodies, not to boards or committees.

You will like this part: The chair is acting improperly in closing debate; he/she does not have that authority, and formally in a board or committee, believe it or not, even a motion to close debate is not in order. In practice, virtually all groups and organizations and board and committees do have motions to close debate. A chair can suggest that closing debate is a good idea, but cannot force it as you describe.

The remedy in parliamentary motions to this situation are motions such as point of order, appeal from the decision of the chair, adjournment, etc. Also, you could bring the problem up at a meeting of the plenary board which created the board.

What authority a board has, as well as its entire nature, is described in the bylaws which create it. Boards vary considerably from organization to organization and circumstance to circumstance. It is difficult to make generalizations that apply reasonably to them all.

Chair of School Board Voting

Dear John,
I need some advice regarding parliamentary procedure. I am an elected member of a six member school board in Franklin, Tennessee. It is customary that the chairman votes on all matters since all members are elected at large and not by districts.

In a board or committee, the chair does vote, can debate, and make motions. You might review the chapters on boards in Robert's Rules of Order Newly Revised.

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