A Usable Summary of Parliamentary Procedure
by Paul Stam
Revised January 2013
The purpose of parliamentary procedure is to facilitate the accomplishment of an organization’s purposes while protecting the right of each member to participate.
Most civic groups, political organizations, churches and denominations have organizational documents such as constitutions, bylaws, articles of incorporation or books of order. To the extent that procedure is not governed by these documents it is covered by parliamentary law. These principles, judiciously used, can help avoid unnecessary conflict.
Most organizations recognize Roberts Rules of Order, Newly Revised.(2010 – 11th Edition) If they generally refer to parliamentary law or to “Roberts Rules” the reference should be taken to mean the latest edition. All references in this paper are to the 11th edition. It is a codification of existing practice. Not all these rules apply to small boards and committees. Most legislative bodies have a different set of rules. For more information I recommend a superb website, www.jimslaughter.com.
The rules can be thought of as ways to protect the following:
- Absentee members
- A single member
- Any two members
- A substantial minority (more than one third and almost 50%)
- A bare majority (more than 50% to less than two-thirds)
- Two-thirds of members
- All the members present at a meeting
The author practices law with Stam & Danchi, PLLC. in Apex, NC (www.paulstam.info). He has served as Parliamentarian for the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina from 1996 – 2007. He taught parliamentary procedure and legislative process at the Foreign Trade Institute of Tianjin, China in June, 1992 and at Xi Ke Da University in Mianyang, China in September, 2005. He is a member of the North Carolina House of Representatives (1989-1990 and 2003-present) and, beginning in 2013, is Speaker Pro Tempore.
An absent member has a right not to have the nature of the organization changed without prior notice. Constitutions or Bylaws normally give the process for notice. If they do not then the minimum requirement is prior notice and a two-thirds vote for a change in the constitution or bylaws. Notice should fairly inform the members of the changes contemplated. The actual change may be no greater than the notice given. (Section 57) An absent member has a right not to be disciplined or expelled without previous notice and an opportunity to be heard. (Section 61)
A SINGLE MEMBER
Each member has the right to have his or her vote counted accurately. Each member has the right to speak to every debatable motion before it is finally acted upon. This right cannot be interfered with except by two-thirds vote. A member who has obtained recognition may both speak and conclude by offering motions. A member recognized for any legitimate purpose has the floor for all legitimate purposes. (Section 42)
There is no such thing as “gavelling through” a measure. Even if the chair has announced the result of a vote the vote should be declared void if it was taken after a member had properly and timely sought recognition.
A member having obtained the floor can speak no longer than 10 minutes unless given additional time. He does not have the right to be recognized to speak a second time if anyone else who has not yet spoken is seeking recognition. He does not have the right to speak a third time without permission. (Section 43)
ANY TWO MEMBERS
The way business is brought before an assembly is by motion. The rule against discussion without a motion is a tool for keeping business “on track”. (Section 4) A brief discussion can occur before the making of a motion. But soon a specific proposal needs to be presented. Until then further debate is out of order. The chair can require a motion to be in writing.
To insure that a motion has some support before taking up the assembly’s time it is seconded by another member. The seconder is not required to vote for a motion. A second is not required in small boards or committees or for a motion recommended by a committee of the assembly that has at least two members.
Time is wasted determining whether a seconder agrees to a suggested amendment. If it is truly an amendment it does not need the seconder’s consent. If the maker of the motion is asked to modify the motion before it is put out for debate it can be presumed that the person who asked for the modification seconds it.
A SUBSTANTIAL MINORITY
The minority has a right to prevent hasty action by the assembly. Motions to suspend the rules or to proceed quickly require a two-thirds vote. That means that (just over) one third of the assembly can prevent hasty actions.
A BARE MAJORITY
The (almost) definition of democracy is that the acts of a majority are the acts of the group. Hill v. Ponder, 221 NC 58, 19 S.E. 2d 5 (1942) cites Jefferson’s Manual (1801), for the proposition that “The voice of the majority decides; for the lex majoris partis is the law of all councils, elections, etc., where not otherwise expressly provided.” An action taken by a bare majority has just as much legal effect as an action taken unanimously. The 1993 tax bill passed by two votes in the U.S. House and one vote in the U.S. Senate. The IRS will collect those taxes as vigorously as taxes which were passed unanimously.
Close votes are often determined by who attends and votes. It is important to count correctly. A tie vote loses. (A chair may vote to break a tie or make a tie – but not both.) To prevail it is not necessary to have one half of the votes plus one. For example, a vote of 39 to 38 wins. The question is whether, of those present and voting, more than half voted in the affirmative. Since 1604 A.D. it has been the rule that the chair must always call for the negative (those voting “no”) even if it is obvious that the affirmative (those voting “yes”) has a majority.
ABSENTEE VOTING: DON’T ALLOW IT!
“It is a fundamental principle of parliamentary law that the right to vote is limited to the members who are actually present at the time the vote is taken. (Section 45, page 423) Exceptions to this rule must be expressly stated in the bylaws. Such exceptions include: (a) voting by mail; and (b) proxy voting. Proxy voting is not permitted in ordinary deliberative assemblies unless laws of the state require it, or the charter or bylaws of the organization provide for it. It should not be allowed because proxy voting is incompatible with the essential characteristics of a deliberative assembly. Personal presence and participation by members in meetings is a fundamental principle of parliamentary procedure. Therefore, if a law under which an organization is incorporated allows proxy voting to be prohibited by a provision of the bylaws, the adoption of Roberts as parliamentary authority in the bylaws is sufficient to prohibit proxy voting. (Section 45, page 414-429)
A substantial majority should have the right to proceed quickly. (Section 25) This includes the motions to adopt standing rules, to limit or extend debate, to refuse to consider a question (Section 26), or to close debate (Section 16). Consider two of these:
A successful motion to call the “previous question” immediately ends debate. It is not allowed in committees and should be rarely used in small boards. This motion is commonly misused as follows: An impatient soul calls out from the back of the room: “call the question”. The chair then presumes to put the main motion to a vote. The impatient soul’s outburst should have been politely ignored because: (1) the impatient soul did not have the floor and did not seek recognition to obtain it; (2) the motion must be seconded; and (3) the motion requires a two-thirds vote to prevail, before a second vote is taken on the main motion. Because the previous question cuts off the rights of the minority it is extremely important for the chair to apply it correctly. I consider it an obnoxious motion to use in a church setting until everyone has had a chance to speak at least once. But if the “previous question” passes the chair must enforce it. It does not allow the chair to allow one last round of debate in the guise of “explaining the question.”
A corollary of the motion for the previous question is the right of the same substantial majority not to waste its time with motions it does not want to consider. Therefore, as soon as a motion is made and seconded but before there has been any debate on it any member can “Object to Consideration”. A two-thirds vote against consideration is required to sustain the objection. (Section 26) This should be used sparingly. I have seen it used successfully when a small minority tried to interfere with the pressing business of a group which had completed lengthy deliberations but had a time deadline to act with planes ready to take off immediately thereafter (with or without the members).
ALL THE MEMBERS PRESENT
All the members present can act by unanimous consent to do almost anything. (Section 25) What all the members cannot do is violate the rights of an absent member or act beyond the legal authority of the articles of incorporation, constitution or bylaws. A skillful chair can use unanimous consent to cut through time-consuming procedures to accomplish what the organization wants to do. But it may only be used when consent is unanimous. So a motion to elect someone by acclamation (which is really a request for unanimous consent) is defeated if anyone objects. And all the members can act only if there is a quorum present. (Section 40)
ADDITIONAL PRINCIPLES RELATED TO COOPERATIVE ORGANIZATIONS
- A skilled leader will try to obtain a consensus on important proposals before the meeting. This requires listening to all points of view and incorporating valid suggestions into the proposal. If members are asked to consider and approve written documents these should be printed and distributed well in advance of the meeting. Majority rule and the desirability of consensus led the original Roberts to state “The great lesson for democracies to learn is for the majority to give to the minority a full, free opportunity to present their side of the case, and then for the minority, having failed to win a majority to their views, gracefully to submit and to recognize the action as that of the entire organization, and cheerfully to assist in carrying it out, until they can secure its repeal.” Intro at Page XLIX. But this is balanced by the recognition that “a requirement of unanimity or near unanimity can become a form of tyranny in itself. In an assembly which tries to make such a requirement the norm, a variety of misguided feelings – reluctance to be seen as opposing the leadership, a notion that causing controversy will be frowned upon, fear of seeming an obstacle to unity – can easily lead to decisions being taken with a pseudo-consensus which in reality implies elements of default, which satisfies no one, and for which no one really assumes responsibility.” Roberts Introduction at L.
- Many organizations invite trouble by having frequent business meetings and by not properly delegating decision making to staff and to committees with specific job descriptions. My recommendation is that an organization have a regular business meeting no more frequently than quarterly (or even annually) with special called meetings when necessary for a particular purpose.
- If the purpose of a meeting is to approve bonds or other financing for real estate the attorney who will close the loan should be engaged before the notices of the meeting go out in order to ensure that the notice provisions of the by-laws are followed.
- Voting eligibility in a congregational setting is governed by the principles stated in Atkins v. Walker, 284 NC 306 at 319, 200 S.E. 2d 641 (1973).