If I Abstain, Does It Count?

You have to love Robert’s Rules. We must love them because we use them all the time.

I was at a meeting where the question came up: If I abstain, does it count? The question was actually a bit more complicated than that. Here’s the deal …

Let’s say you need a certain percentage of affirmative votes in order for a motion to pass. Does an abstention count in the overall number of votes against which the percentage is calculated? Example: If there are twelve voting members present and you need a 3/4 affirmative vote – 7 persons vote “Yea”; 2 persons vote “Nay”; 3 persons abstain. Does the motion carry? You will love the answer: It depends.

What is your policy?

  1. Do you use the total number of votes cast,
  2. the total number of people present, or
  3. the total number that constitutes the membership on your board – whether they are present or not?

If your policy is #1, then the answer is “Yes”. The motion carries. If your policy is #2, then “No”; the motion does not carry. If your policy is #3, then I don’t know. The example tells us how many people are “present”, not how many actual members there are in the organization doing the voting.

An “abstention” is not a vote. It is a refusal to vote. In the example, 9 votes were cast. 3/4 of 9 is 6.75.

Next Tuesday’s election is being couched in rather ominous terms. Charles Blow says our nation is facing an “existential threat”. Gail Collins takes a slightly more humorous approach, comparing the election to what it would be like to have to vote for a “crazy saxophonist who couldn’t follow the music [or] a disciplined but slightly boring guitarist.” Rather than abstain, Collins points to the number of Republicans who are writing in the names of people who aren’t running. It would be like the “celebrity guest panel announced that the winner was Placido Domingo.”

Perhaps to stay home next Tuesday would be to abstain. But writing in “Abraham Lincoln” (or Jimmy Carter, or John McCain, etc.) wouldn’t be much better.

Are the elections rigged? Who, and exactly where is this ‘electoral college’ everybody keeps talking about? Is there any talk of hanging Chad this year? Poor Chad!

Faith groups are holding Election Prayer Vigils this year, and it’s not just the Evangelicals doing the praying. Even the Liberals are being driven to their knees in anticipation of “the day”. And of course, many of you have already voted. What is with that? Isn’t it bad enough that the campaign season is so long; do we have to lengthen the time in which one can actually cast the vote? Isn’t one day enough! And just to rub salt in the wound, we revert back to “Standard Time” the weekend prior to election – like we need all of this to be an hour longer.

By the way, back to the “6.75” votes needed in the example above … the rules are clear: Do not round up! “6.75” means 7! You can’t do with votes what politicians do with polls, using all kinds of interpretive shenanigans to try to explain the results to prove they are winning.

We are blessed, though. Even if it feels like we are kicking the air, we have the freedom to cast the ballot. Even if it doesn’t matter to anyone else, when I vote I have the sense that I’m not abstaining from life. I’m stepping into the fray and having my say.

C’mon! Get out there next Tuesday! I’ll even hold the ball for you…



Mark Demers

Want to talk about sex, politics, spirituality? So do I. I grew up in a religious home in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Our country was reeling from assassinations and the devastation of the Viet Nam War. Looking for something beautiful, I got a degree in music, married the love of my life and had children. Looking for God, I then went to seminary. Looking for something that might transform the world, I became a local church pastor. Now, I’m always looking for people who want to talk about important things. I cherish conversations with emerging leaders, people who are antsy to try an idea they believe would change the world for the better. I’d would love to hear from you.