I got myself involved in a couple of boards11 First the condo association, then our parent co-op daycare.. Knowing nothing about the procedures used in board meetings, I just winged it and imitated everyone else at first. That felt like a silly way to go about things, though, so I decided to read the short version of Robert’s Rules of Order22 Robert’s Rules of Order, Newly Revised, In Brief; Robert, Honnemann, Balch, et al.; PublicAffairs, 2020..
The structure and format commonly used in board meetings and other types of group deliberation are known as parliamentary procedure. There are many variants of this, but the ones you’ll encounter in practise have a lot in common: one person speaking at a time, about the merits of the proposal in question, which eventually goes to a majority vote. In many places, Robert’s Rules of Order is the reference for parliamentary procedure.
When reading Robert’s Rules of Order, I learned two things that struck me as deeply important, which I had misunderstood in the past:
- The purpose of debate is not winning, it’s about information sharing.
- Votes should not need to be counted, the result should be clear anyway.
I’ll explain one at a time..
In the middle of a paragraph about something completely different, the authors write
Vigorous debate about the merits of a motion is central to the very idea of a deliberative assembly. When the arguments on all sides are fully aired, the group is most likely to come to a wise decision.
This is incredibly profound, and it seems like the authors just take it for granted.
For literally all my life, I have thought of group debate as a thing where both sides try to convince the other of their stupidity, and the debate is only resolved when one side gives up.
Turns out that’s not at all how it’s supposed to work. You debate something so that everyone has heard the complications considered important by the group. Then when it goes to a vote, each person is able to consider this important information and form a judgment of their own.
In a group debate, nobody as to (or even should?) change their minds. It’s okay to have different priorities and think different things are best. Debate is not about admitting fault or changing one’s mind – it’s about informing the rest of the group about which arguments one thinks are salient to the judgment.
In other words, group debate is about adversarial information sharing, not convincing anyone of anything.
Less profound but equally important: for most of my life, I’ve considered it very important and prudent to count votes. Of course one should count votes. You know what they say, “every vote counts?” Surely you must count votes!
But think about it: in what situation does it actually matter that you count the votes? Specifically when the assembly is divided nearly into 50/50 sides and it’s hard to distinguish the majority by guesstimation alone. We have group deliberation specifically to improve our decisions. If we make decisions with a 50/50 split in the group, we’re making just as many bad decision as we are good ones.
If you feel the need to count the vote, a better option might to continue the debate and/or amend the proposal until people’s concerns are considered well enough that you no longer have such a close split of opinions.33 Technically, Robert’s Rules of Order have procedures for counted votes, it’s just that you’re not supposed to do them by default.
What do you do instead of a counted vote? First, ask if anyone has objections to the proposal. If there are no objections, it can be accepted without a vote. If there are objections, then some debate can be followed by an uncounted vote. This is commonly done by voice, by raising your hand, or by standing up. In either case, you first ask the people supporting the vote to e.g. raise their hand, and then you ask the people negative about it to do the same.44 The reason you need to ask both sides to indicate their opinion is that you should only consider the votes of people who actually voted when performing a majority vote. Even if there are 500 people in the room, if only 3 people vote and 2 of them are for, that’s the majority vote passing.
Alternatives To Majority Voting
I couldn’t write an article on parliamentary procedure without talking about alternatives to majority voting. One of the flaws of majority voting is that in effect, it’s the majority deciding what’s best for the minority, with very little consideration for what the minority thinks.
There are two possible reasons majority voting can work. One of them is less sinister: if each participant chooses to selflessly accept the majority opinion regardless of what it is for the greater good of the group, the majority vote will work.
The other reason is that the majority outnumbers the minority and can, hypothetically, threaten them with violence if they don’t comply with the majority decision. I suspect this is the historical background behind the idea of the majority vote. 50 % is simply the smallest number you can have while not risking having the vote overturned by force.
A particularly neat alternative to Robert’s Rules of Order is Formal Consensus55 The best reference I know here is On Conflict and Consensus: A Handbook on Formal Consensus Decisionmaking; Butler & Rothstein; Food Not Bombs Publishing; 1987. Available online.. In many ways its similar, but one of the critical differences is that decisions are made only when everyone affected by the decision consents to it. This means the debate can drag on for longer, because every concern needs not only to be aired, but also resolved for the proposal to pass. The ethical idea behind this is that you shouldn’t make people do things unless they agree with them in the first place, so any decision by a group needs to be agreed to by the entire group.
However, the longer debate in an assembly using formal consensus can be followed by a much faster implementation, because everyone already agrees to what needs to be done, so there’s no additional time spent on explaining the decision to others and trying to make them to comply with it.