Abstentions and Effect on Voting Questions

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

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When a member of City Council votes "Present," what exactly does present mean?  Aye or Nay or ?  Many thanks.

Saying "present" is not a proper vote and the chair should not allow it. If the council member means to abstain, he/she should state an abstention. Someone should educate the council member prior to the next vote informally in order not to embarrass him or her. Many people who do good work in the world learn parliamentary procedure "on their feet."

Saw your website and had a question that I can't find answered anywhere on the internet.  What does it mean to vote "present"? I notice that legislators sometimes do this on sensitive bills. What does that sort of vote buy them in terms of political cover?

It is not formally in parliamentary procedure, but is in effect an abstention. Abstentions are ignored in counting votes.

Figuring Out Who Won the Vote Questions

2/3 Vote, Abstentions, "Present and Voting"

I saw your Web page and thought it was well-designed and helpful. I've got some questions I was hoping you might answer if you have time. It might be helpful to skim my entire message in order to better understand it.

Our organization's constitution, like many, references Robert's Rules as the authority for any matters not specifically covered by it. My first question has to do with counting abstentions when determining whether or not a majority (in this case, 2/3 majority) vote has been attained.

There is no such thing as a 2/3 majority. The correct language is a 2/3 vote. Majority in law and parliamentary procedure always means "more than half." Abstentions are never counted, although in some cases the failure of a motion to receive a certain vote (e.g., 2/3 of the members present) an abstention has the effect of a negative vote.

I know that abstentions are not usually counted when determining what constitutes a majority. However, our constitution says that to overturn certain decisions requires a "two-thirds vote of the members present and voting."

"Two-thirds vote of the members present and voting" has a clear meaning: If there are thirty members voting and the vote is 4-2 (with everyone else abstaining), then the motion passes. "Two-thirds vote of the members present" would require 20 affirmative votes for the motion to pass.

Would that imply that abstentions would count in this case, so that abstaining was essentially the same as voting no (since the majority must be calculated based on all the members who are voting, not subtracting those who abstain)?

As above, in the first case no, but yes in the second.

Or does abstaining mean that you are not a "member present and voting?"

It means you are a member present but not voting. Abstentions are never counted.

Later, in a different section (this one applying to amending the constitution), it says "a two-thirds majority [sic: should be 2/3] of affirmative votes of the members present and voting is required for adoption [of an amendment]."

Candidly, the bylaw is badly written, as it confuses two things. Robert's Rules of Order Newly Revised has examples of correct language on p. 398. I think the intent was probably to require 2/3 of all those present, but it is not what the language says. Furthermore, Robert's
advises organizations not to set such a requirement, among other things because often organizations can't even get a quorum to attend a meeting.

It wouldn't surprise me if the different phrasing was somewhat unintentional, but do you see any different implication by the use of the word "affirmative?" I would assume it just means "yes" votes, even though that's not totally logical (since that means its literal meaning is that "a majority of the yes votes is required).

Yes, "affirmative" is what gives me the sense of what the authors may have intended. However, the meaning of "present and voting" is clear and I believe would determine the vote needed to pass the action. "Affirmative" is a synonym for "yes," as you say.

Here's the situation. An executive committee made a decision that was later modified by the membership. Out constitution gives the membership the right to overturn such decisions with a 2/3 vote. Technically, we probably should have simply nullified the decision of the executive committee and forced them to make a new one, but we didn't -- we changed the terms of it but left the overall decision intact. Then, months later, the membership voted to overturn the (modified) decision, by a vote of 8-3-2. 8 votes in the affirmative is only a 2/3 majority if you don't count abstentions. Our constitution does not specifically say whether abstentions are counted when overturning a past decision of the membership, but in other sections it uses the "members present and voting" phrasing mentioned above.

The motion passed. In a two-thirds vote, just double the number of negative votes and you have the number needed to pass (which would be 6). Again, abstentions are not counted and have no effect (for reasons stated above).

Do you think the decision should be overturned? In general, are there any restrictions on the ability of a body to reconsider decisions that were reached earlier, other than the 2/3 requirement?

"Should" I don't know, as that is a substantive judgment on the issues of the motion. However, from what you said, the assembly (i.e., the membership) exercised its rights to make a decision. To change previous actions is considered a serious affair, serious enough to require more than a majority to do so. The motion to Rescind is the basic form of such actions; with no previous notice to members that such an action will be proposed, the requirement is 2/3 vote to pass; however, with previous notice (e.g., at a meeting announcing that the motion will be made in the next meeting or in the agenda for a meeting), then only a majority is required. As far as restrictions go, there are some limits to the Rescind motion (see Robert's p. 302)--for example, you cannot rescind a contract when the other party has been informed of the vote, when a resignation has been acted upon, or when something has been done as a result of the motion which is impossible to undo.

Thanks so much for your help and opinions.

You're welcome. I hope my comments clarify matters for you and are

Thank you so much for your answers. They were completely clear and very helpful. I really appreciate your taking the time.

Abstentions and Illegal Votes

An issue arose within our Department (Biology) regarding voting. So far I've not been able to get a satisfactory opinion (maybe meaning I don't agree with it) from local people I've put it to. The Dept chair put forward a proposal to be decided by a mail ballot vote by the faculty. There are 23 faculty eligible to vote, but it is clear that some do not agree that this item should be voted on, especially without prior faculty discussion and agreement about the vote. The issue finally boils down to this: In a ballot vote, is a written in vote of "Abstain" to be counted in determining the majority. I contend that this is an 'illegal' vote (in Robert's sense of the word) and thus should count in determining the number of votes cast. I understand that blank votes would not count - they are pieces of paper. However, I would contend that an "Abstain" vote is a real vote, since "the principle is that a choice has no mandate from the voting body unless approval is expressed by more than half of those entitled to vote and registering any evidence of having an opinion."[Roberts, p 351] The vote was in this case a real vote - since neither alternative put on the ballot was acceptable {i.e. would you like to be shot with a 38 or a 357??}. I would argue that the "Abstain" votes were cast, and thus that the number of votes actually cast should be the determining factor for determining the majority. Thus, just as on p. 352 of Roberts (8th edition, my version), the Tellers report might be:

No of votes cast: 23
Necessary to pass 12
Votes for: 11
Votes against 9
Illegal votes 3

Counted this way, the issue would not pass. However, if the abstentions are not counted toward the total number, then the # of votes is reduced to 20, and the issue passes.

I think there is confusion because in a voice or hand vote, I can understand that different rules must apply. In a voice vote one could not ordinarily vote for both choices to create an illegal vote (as this would lead immediately to a recount), and there is not the possibility of an "unintelligible" vote on voice or hand votes, though there is on a ballot. [This was a mail ballot and thus a blank paper could have been turned in, but it was not.] Abstaining in a voice or hand vote I think is akin to not turning in a ballot or turning in a blank ballot. In contrast, a write-in vote to "Abstain" should be a vote.

Please understand, I am not into parliamentary rules very often. But this does raise the question - what would be an appropriate way to avoid voting either way on an ballot issue? Isn't the important issue of not being "compelled" to vote on an issue also important? Would voting for both of 2 alternatives count as an illegal ballot and thereby possibly be a strategy to prevent passage of an issue on a ballot that required a majority and could not get it (because there was now 1 or more illegal ballots)??

Thanks for your time. (These issues are important for the people involved).

Well, I'm afraid you won't like this answer, but it is definitive.

Blank ballots (or abstentions) are ignored. Therefore, if 23 ballots were cast with 2 voting yes, 1 voting no, and 20 blank, the motion would pass.

Your reasoning is not correct and wouldn't be supported by any parliamentary authority.

In California's non-profit organization code, the problem of a lost quorum is handled in an interesting manner. If a meeting has a quorum to begin with but then loses the quorum because people leave, the meeting still is legal and can continue so long as motions are passed by a majority of the quorum. Also in California, the Board of Trustees of the California State University system did not like the possibility that a faculty member could get tenure or promoted by a vote of (for example) 2-1-23, so they rewrote the personnel rules to require "an affirmative vote of a majority of the entire membership of the Board." I mention these because they are similar to your reasoning.

Bylaws (and other legal documents) sometimes specify something like "a majority of the members present" or "a majority of the membership" for certain motions. In such cases, there is a precise number needed to pass, so blank ballots or abstentions have the effect of being a negative vote. However, if this type of provision is not in the governing documents for an organization, then what are often called simple majority rules apply.

By the information you gave me, it is clear that 11-9 are the determining votes, so the motion (or proposal) passes. Even though there is certainly a rationality to your reasoning on the matter, the parliamentary principles are deeply ingrained in democratic principles and practices, not to mention parliamentary law. Remember, if only three people in the United States cast a ballot for a Presidential candidate and everybody else abstains, then that candidate gets elected.

I hope this information is useful to you. I am sorry it isn't what you wanted to read.

I thank you for your response and will refrain from continuing this too long. To clarify - this was not a departmental tenure matter. Our bylaws specifically cover that issue along the lines of what you describe. I have no problem with that. To sharpen the focus, my concern regards a voting technicality. On a secret mail ballot, a blank vote submitted, or no vote at all submitted, would be an abstention. However when a vote is cast with "Abstain" written in, that vote should mean "I do not vote for A or B." OR "I vote for neither A or B. Therefore, it is a legitimate expression of the choice of the voter, not unlike a write-in candidate (Can you write in a candidate for an elected office on a ballot only when there is a space provided for that?)

You stated in your reply: [ Remember, if only three people in the United States cast a ballot for a Presidential candidate and everybody else abstains, then that candidate gets elected.] I accept this, because the key point is "cast a ballot." What if 10 cast a ballot: two for A, one for B and 7 voted "I vote for neither A or B.?

Is there some other legitimate option available to a voter who opposes both alternatives on a ballot?

I'll try not to bother you further with this. Thank you for your comments.

The problem has to do with key definitions in law and in parliamentary procedure. An abstention or a blank ballot or a ballot with "I hate both of the sonofabitches" written on it is not a vote; it is ignored and not counted. They are ignored even in the cases in which, as I described in the earlier response, the bylaws require a "majority of the entire membership." For example, assume that there are 49 members and all are at the meeting, that the motion had a bylaws requirement for a "majority of the entire membership, and that only 21 people cast a vote; in this case, the chair would report something like, "The vote was 19-2, so the motion fails because 25 votes were necessary to pass the resolution."

In response to your question, Is there some other legitimate option available to a voter who opposes both alternatives on a ballot?, the best solutions apply before the vote is taken. If you dislike the motion on the floor, it is your right as a member to move an amendment to improve it, to move a substitute motion (a form of amendment), to object to consideration of the question, to move to refer the matter to a committee for study and development of a better proposal, to move to postpone indefinitely, etc. You could move to "create blanks" in a motion to give the group a choice of different options for its critical parts. The parliamentary rules contain many motions which, in their best use, are designed to help the group improve a question put before them or to dispose of it if it cannot be improved.

After an action is taken, at that meeting (or the next day) only, a motion to reconsider can bring the matter up for a new discussion and vote; while only someone voting on the prevailing side can move to reconsider, any member can change their vote on a question before the chair (having announced the voting outcome) announces the result of the vote; e.g., "The vote was 19-1, so the motion passes."

Similarly, after the action has been taken, motions rescind or to amend something previously adopted are useful for correcting problems. Sometimes as people in a majority sentiment on a particular question leave a meeting, an active minority becomes the majority of the quorum at a meeting and they use the opportunity (inadvertently even) to pass something the whole group would never have passed. In such cases, a motion to rescind or to amend something previously adopted could be used to correct the problem. There is a little known but real motion called a motion to "reconsider and enter on the minutes" that stops all action on the motion in question; the motion cannot be considered the same day it is made, but a special meeting could be called for the next day. It is a legal motion, but not used much because so few people do know about it and because when someone does use it at a meeting, everybody gets extremely angry at them. (In Robert's Rules of Order Newly Revised, it is a special form of the motion to reconsider but is stated clearly.

Parliamentary procedure contains rules to help transact business, but they unhappily do not solve every human problem. Plenty of times I go out of a meeting feeling depressed. How can I know so much about parliamentary procedure and still lose the vote? It is hard to sort out the process from the other issues in a conflict in a meeting.

Good luck. If you have any further questions, I am pleased to respond to them. Responding to the e-mail questions doesn't take too long each day.

Thank you very much. Your comments have been helpful. In this case I believe there was some impropriety from the start in how this ever came to a vote since it did not come out of a meeting, but that is hard to deal with at this point. - Don

That is another complicated matter. Department chairs and university governance mechanisms widely around higher education, of course, but generally administrators make decisions with some requirements to consult with their constituent groups. It is almost certainly within a chair's right to conduct a poll of the faculty on some decision he/she needs to make; that is, it is one of a number of alternative things that could be done. As a chair for 12 years myself (until last year), I know one of my best devices was to talk with two or three or four faculty (whoever I bumped into), glean some sort of consensus idea out of that, and then go ahead and go something; one of my colleagues referred to this as "the kitchen cabinet."

The remedy for this situation is to use the department's procedures, which probably include a provision by which a faculty member (or some group of faculty) can request a meeting, and at that meeting the issue could be discussed.

I would advise simply framing the issue in terms of having concerns about what the department's is planning to do (i.e., the proposal passed by the ballot poll) and a desire to discuss the matter as a faculty. Challenging the legitimacy of the process by which consultation occurred or the conduct/motives of the chair will probably only muddy the waters and not contribute to a reasoned discussion at the meeting.

In actuality, I think, department faculty do not want a meeting to discuss everything. The department is like a huge ocean liner. Sometimes the faculty wish to change the course slightly, so have a meeting to get the captain to change the direction a bit. But as I was told on several occasions, because "we demanded a meeting on Topic X once doesn't mean we want one on every decision you make on Topic X in the future." It is a hard thing for a chair to figure out, so I would have sympathy for your chair.

Having said that, professors by their nature have a vital and compelling interest in the programs and life of a department and when serious reservations arise, it is more healthy to have open and colleagial discussions about the reservations than it is to left them fester.

Thanks again for your thoughtful comments. Back to the original matter, let me ask one more thing. Do you agree that there can be an "illegal" vote (in Robert's sense of the word) on a ballot, and if so would it be tallied as Robert's suggests (i.e. counted toward determining the majority needed for passage)?

On this question, yes, there can be illegal votes cast and they are to be used in computing the majority needed for passage. What is an illegal vote is subject to rules, but also to subjective interpretation in particular cases.

Abstentions and 2/3 Vote

Dear Dr. Cagle:
Last night at our General Meeting we voted on an a very important subject. The vote was by ballot and secret. In order to pass, the motion had to have "of 2/3 majority of the membership present at the meeting." The printed ballots provided for 'Yes' 'No' and 'Abstain.' The final result was: 42 YES, 21 NO, and 4 ABSTAIN.
Does the motion pass? I researched Robert's but I could not find anything dealing with abstentions. 'Blanks' is the closest thing. Is an 'abstain vote' considered a 'blank vote?'
Do the printed ballot with the 'Abstain' option invalidate the voting?
If the number of YES votes (42) is exactly 2/3 of the YES and NO (63), does the motion passes?
Believe it or not I called many people and nobody can give me an answer. I would appreciate your collaboration in this matter.
Thank you.
Alameda Soccer Club President

I can give you a definitive opinion on it.

If the language you indicated, "of 2/3 majority of the membership present at the meeting," is from your bylaws, it must be followed. [Parenthetically, there is an error in the language. It should read "of 2/3 vote of the membership present at the meeting." There is no such thing as a 2/3 majority, even though one hears it often.]

Based on that, the motion would be defeated. Because the language stated "of the membership present at the meeting," everyone is counted in determining the number of votes needed to pass.

Without that requirement, blank ballots or abstentions are ignored--and that is the technical language. In that case, 42 is 2/3 of those voting, so the motion would pass. However, the language you mentioned (presumably from a bylaws of some sort) is proper and is used to create a higher standard for passing some types of motions.

I hope these comments help clarify the situation for you.

Abstentions Outnumber the Voters

I am Assistant to the Chair in the English Department at the University at ALbany, SUNY. At a Faculty Advisory Committee meeting last week (at which I record the minutes), a vote was taken on a motion which was Yes=5, No=0, Abstain=8. The question is, did the motion carry? Thanks for any clarification you can provide.

Well, hello to SUNY Albany. I was born in Brooklyn--one of the few.

Anyway, the answer is that abstentions are completely ignored. The rules for simple majority are that a majority of all those voting is needed. In the figures you gave me, 5 people voted, and of those 5 voted yes and none voted no. Therefore, the motion carried.

In California, the Board of Trustees for the California State University system got very concerned that you could have a situation in which a faculty tenure committee with, e.g., 13 members might have a meeting at which someone would get tenure with 1 person voting yes, none voting no, and 12 abstentions. That was true. The Board directed its collective bargaining negotiators to draw a hard line in the sand in the next round of contract negotiation to include a provision that no one would get tenure unless "more than half of all the members of the tenure board voted affirmatively for tenure." This provision was included in the next contract and we've had it ever since. I mention it to illustrate the fact that a bylaws (or some other governing document) can specify a different definition of majority.

But, absent that sort of specific provision, the notion of simple majority obtains.

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