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Robert's Rules on Absentee Voting

A fundamental principle of parliamentary law, and Robert's Rules, is that decisions are made only by the members present in a properly called meeting at which a quorum is present. However, sometimes you need to extend voting rights to members who can't physically be there to vote. In this case, you have a couple options.

Voting by proxy

If anything's likely to cause trouble for a group, it's proxy voting. Voting by proxy, which is giving somebody a power of attorney to cast a vote for you, is inconsistent with the fundamental concepts that voting rights are not transferable and members must be present at the time a vote is taken.

According to Robert's Rules, adopting a bylaw establishing Robert's Rules as your parliamentary authority is as good as adopting a bylaw to prohibit the use of proxies — unless your group is incorporated! Then, the law reigns supreme. It makes sense to have your lawyer and your parliamentarian work together to help you coordinate provisions in your bylaws with your laws and articles of incorporation so that you have things set up like you want them.

Voting by mail

Voting by mail is a trade-off: You give up the benefits of discussion and debate in favor of giving all your members an opportunity to vote. Voting by mail probably isn't worth the extra expense if most of your members can make it to meetings. But in large state, national, or international organizations that don't have some sort of delegate assembly, mail voting in elections (or to decide bylaw amendments) may make sense.

With mail voting, you have to be able to confirm that each vote is from a member who's entitled to vote. But you also have to be able to ensure that each member's vote can remain secret. Both goals are accomplished by providing for a dual-envelope return system along with a special procedure for opening and counting ballots.

Mail voting is subject to the following considerations:

  • Mail voting must be authorized in bylaws.

  • The question must not be changed at a meeting!

    Any time your organization wants to allow members to vote by mail, you must be sure that you don't enable a decision on a question to combine mail votes with votes cast after discussion, amendments, or floor nominations at a meeting.

  • Mailing lists must be complete and accurate.

    When the time comes to send ballots out to your members, your treasurer and secretary need to work together to make sure the mailing list is up-to-date and all the current members are on the list. They also need to ensure that purged members don't get ballots in error.

  • The secrecy and integrity of the vote must be preserved!

Sending the ballots to the members

For secret mail-in ballots, each voter receives

  • A ballot and all the information necessary for the member to mark it properly and return it in a timely manner.

  • A small envelope on which the voter signs and prints his name and in which he places his folded, marked ballot.

  • A separate, self-addressed return envelope into which the sealed envelope containing the ballot is placed for mailing back to the tellers. This envelope should be distinctive and recognizable as containing a sealed ballot so that it's not inadvertently opened before the election.

  • Any additional information, such as brief statements from the candidates for elective office, or summaries or rationales related to items that are the subject of a vote.

If the ballot doesn't require secrecy, then the small ballot envelope isn't necessary, and the ballot itself should have a place for the signature and printed name of the voter. (You still have to verify the voter is entitled to vote!)

Processing returned ballots

When the outer envelopes are returned, the designated recipient should keep them (unopened) until the election. At the meeting when the votes are to be counted, these envelopes are opened in the presence of the tellers. The signed inner envelopes are removed, and the name on each inner envelope is compared to the list of eligible voters. When your tellers confirm the voter is eligible, his name is checked on the list as having voted. Only then does the teller remove the ballot from the signed envelope and deposit it, without unfolding it, into the ballot box.

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