12 Robert's Rules Meeting Procedure Myths

Most members and presiding officers really do have an interest in conducting business according to Robert’s Rules. The real trouble is that, more often than not, they’ve never actually read Robert’s Rules. Unfortunately, Robert’s Rules is often misinterpreted, and a lot of common meeting procedure myths are floating around.

Myth #1: Robert’s Rules is just a guide you don’t have to follow

If your bylaws provide that Robert’s Rules is your parliamentary authority, then the rules are binding on your group.

If you adopt a parliamentary authority, its rules are binding on the organization, insofar as they don’t conflict with the bylaws or special rules of order the organization adopts.

Myth #2: Only one motion can be on the floor at a time

Robert’s Rules establishes that it’s a fundamental principle of parliamentary law that only “one question can be considered at a time.” You can consider only one question at a time. That question is referred to as the immediately pending question.

The myth arises because the actual rule is often misstated. Several pending motions can actually be on the floor at one time when you include any secondary motions that may be made during the handling of a main motion.

Myth #3: The presiding officer can vote only to break a tie

This popular myth, and its variation that the chair must vote to break a tie, are more common than ants at a picnic. And it’s simply not so!

Robert’s Rules says that the presiding officer (if a member) votes with the other members when a vote is by ballot. For other forms of voting, though, the chair’s duty to maintain the appearance of impartiality while presiding requires him to refrain from voting, except when his vote will affect the result.

The chair votes along with other members whenever the vote is by ballot; otherwise, he votes only when he wants to use his vote to affect the result.

Myth #4: The parliamentarian makes rulings

Some presiding officers like to pass the buck when it comes to handling points of order and parliamentary inquiries. They say things like, “The parliamentarian just ruled that . . .” or “The parliamentarian says you can’t [or can] do such-and-such.”

The parliamentarian’s job is to advise the presiding officer and give an opinion when asked. But the sole responsibility for ruling on a point of order or answering a parliamentary inquiry lies with the chair.

Myth #5: A motion not seconded is void

The purpose of the requirement for a motion to be seconded is to avoid wasting your group’s time on a motion that no one other than the person who makes the motion wants to discuss.

If the members debate an unseconded motion, vote on an unseconded motion without debating it, or adopt it by unanimous consent, the motion is adopted, being presumed to have a second because members discussed it or acted upon it.

A point of order that a motion is not in order for lack of a second must be made before any discussion or vote takes place on the motion.

Myth #6: Abstentions count as yes (or no) votes

One of the most frequent questions asked of parliamentarians is “How do you count abstentions?” The answer is simple: You don’t. Abstentions are not votes. They’re instances of members choosing not to vote.

A member has a duty to vote, but he can’t be compelled to vote, because he also has the right to remain neutral on a particular question. Therefore, requiring a motion to be decided based on the number of members present usually isn’t a good idea; this arrangement denies a member the right to be neutral on the question.

Myth #7: The chair must ask for unfinished business

Unfinished business is business brought over from an earlier meeting. It consists of motions not finally disposed of, perhaps postponed from the prior meeting or pending when the meeting adjourned. As a class of business, its items are determined based on what happened at the prior meeting. Unfinished business isn’t the place for members to bring up old ideas that never took off.

Myth #8: The chair must call for nominations three times

This myth seems to have a life of its own, like some kind of urban legend. It rivals the myth that all a member has to do to stop debate is to holler “Question!”

The motion to close nominations is never in order as long as anyone wants to make a nomination. In fact, the motion is rarely even necessary. Upon determining that no further nominations are forthcoming from the members, the chair simply declares nominations closed.

Myth #9: If the winner doesn’t serve, second place can take over

If the winner declines the office after being elected, you have what Robert’s Rules calls an incomplete election. To resolve the incomplete election, you need to reopen nominations and have another try at it. If the winner fails to serve out the term of office, you’re left with a vacancy, and you need to follow the rules in your bylaws for filling the vacancy.

Myth #10: Officers must be members

If your organization follows this policy, it’s not because of anything in Robert’s Rules. The only way you can properly put a limitation on who to elect is to establish that qualification in the bylaws. If you don’t have this kind of limitation, however, Robert’s Rules recognizes the complete autonomy of a membership body to select anyone it wants to serve as an officer.

Myth #11: Ex officio members can’t vote

Now that’s just plain silly. Of course they can vote! They’re members, aren’t they? Ex officio simply refers to how they came to be a member: They hold membership by virtue of some office. Members can always vote, no matter how they come to be a member, unless some concrete rule specific to your group restricts the voting rights of a particular class of members.

Myth #12: Motions don’t take effect until minutes are approved

Motions are in effect upon adoption, unless the motion provides for some other effective date. The fact that minutes aren’t yet approved has nothing to do with whether a motion is in effect. Approving minutes approves only the record of the adoption of the motion, not the motion itself.

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