Thursday, February 1, 2024

A Surfeit of Secretaries

In the practice session of a recent caucus/parliamentary law training I lead, the students ran into the issue of how to deal with more than two candidates nominated for an office, none of whom had majority support. It isn't an uncommon problem, but it can be tricky for first time chairs to facilitate and, often, for participants to understand how to navigate for their best- possible outcome.

My typical training day usually has a lecture in the morning, videos from actual caucuses during and after lunch (good and bad examples), followed by practice sessions in the afternoon. My own first caucus experiences were a bit less gentle: a small number of us taught ourselves and then were tossed in the deep end, sink or swim. I try to give my students a few more tools to work with than I had myself.

In any case, in the practice session at a recent class, I dealt playing cards to divide people up in support for different candidates (each suit represented a candidate). They had to come up with their own strategy. True to life, they did not necessarily know how many supporters they truly had until the caucus started. In any case, in this particular run, the chair vote went smoothly: the very first candidate got a majority on the first vote and I, dutifully, passed the gavel to the winner.

The new chair took nominations for secretary. There were four or five, but two withdrew from the nomination. This left three nominees, and, as it happened, none of them initially had a majority to support them.

Setting the Scene

In order to protect the innocent, let's call the three candidates John Smith (JS) , Pierre-Claude Wagonschlaus III (PCW3), and Sally Fletcher (SF). The chair started off from the beginning with a rising vote (as I recommend in caucuses). In the first round of voting, the ayes looked like this(*):


The number of eligible voters is 28, but the chair is not voting. With or without the Chair, a majority is 14 or more and no one has it. Under Robert's Rules of Order (and most parliamentary systems), 50% + 1 is required to elect, not merely having the highest number of votes in a round (a 'plurality'). So, now what?

Sometimes, sets of rules for an event specify that a candidate receiving the least votes in a round drops away. The current 2024 rules published by the Missouri Republican State Committee (MRSC) has such a rule for other votes further into the process, but is silent on this topic. The MRSC document also forbids any local rule modifications and, at this point in the process, it is too early for a caucus (or convention) to pass its own standing rules. It is not a serious issue, however.

The MRSC states that the latest edition of Roberts' Rules of Order applies where it does not conflict the the MRSC document. In 2024, that would be the 12th edition of Roberts' Rules of Order, Newly Revised (RONR12). If you still have the 11th edition (RONR11), don't worry, the following process has not changed. Be aware, however, that RONR11 is cited by either page number or section, whereas RONR12 is cited only by section (because page numbers do not match between the printed and online editions).

What does Robert's Rules say?

OK, so what does RONR12 say to do with the 'extra' candidates? Nothing.

Let's explain.

When repeated balloting for an office is necessary, individuals are never removed from candidacy on the next ballot unless they voluntarily withdraw-- which they are not obligated to do. The candidate in lowest place may be a "dark horse" on whom all factions prefer to agree. [RONR11 pp 441, RONR12 §46:31]

(Be aware of the note on the bottom of the page regarding special rules and dropping candidates.)

This process flows from the fact that parliamentary law is designed to move forward the business of the majority while protecting the rights of the minority. Members have a right to nominate candidates and ought not have that arbitrarily taken away. Where there is no clear majority, Robert's Rules is designed to develop consensus for action.

So, the idea is for the Chair to simply represent the same set of candidates for a vote. The members of the assembly know what the count was and are free to change their votes. The candidates can make the same choice by choosing to drop out of contention and endorse another. But it does not simply have to repeat the same vote over and over. Various motions may be made to affect the voting process, including:

  • reopen nominations and suggest a compromise candidate.
  • vote by ballot if it is felt that members might be more free to change votes if they were private.

These are incidental motions (requires a second, no debate, majority vote [RONR11 pp 283, RONR12 §30]. Finally. a short recess may be requested for the candidates or their supporters to make a deal (privileged motion, requires a second, not debatable, majority vote [RONR11 pp 231, RONR12 §20]). The overarching principle is for the Chair to facilitate the process of reaching consensus without imposing their own will by arbitrarily removing candidates from consideration. As we will discuss below, these situations arise for different reasons and sometimes will resolve surprisingly quickly. Other times, it may be a long process.

Something else to be aware of is that members may change their votes even within the same round. This is perhaps best illustrated if we consider what might have happened if they had been nominated in a different order:


Here, two voters for SF and PCW3, realizing that they have lost, transfer their votes. With 15 votes, JS ends the round with a majority and is elected. The fact that 2+12+15 adds up to more of the total available votes does not matter. It ought be clear, however, that order of nomination does matter for these reasons [cf RONR12 §38-39, RONR11 pp 443 par 1-10]. If the vote is conducted by ballot, this cannot happen, because each ballot may only contain one name.

If the two SF voters had immediately transferred their support to PCW3, then the 12+2=14 votes would have constituted a majority. PCW3 would win immediately and no vote would be needed for JS.

How It Came Out

So how did it come out in the actual class exercise? One of the members called for a 2 minute recess (without objection), the candidates left the room briefly, and two of them decided to drop out. The remaining candidate, now unopposed, was elected by acclamation. Remember, that it is important in any event of this kind to count every vote in an open and transparent manner, but if an election or motions is truly unopposed it requires no vote at all.

Chair: Without objection, we will have a 2 minute recess while the candidates discuss...
JS and SF have informed me that they are withdrawing from the contest. Seeing that we have only one candidate remaining, without objection, we will elect PCW3 by acclamation.
Seeing no objection, PCW3 is elected Secretary.

Clearly, if there is objection, the vote must be taken. It is possible, for instance, (though rather rare) for the assembly to reject a single nomination, at which point, the only option is to reopen nominations.

Why It May Happen

It may seem odd that you would end up with a large number of options for secretary with no majority. If the Chair was elected by a majority, why would the Secretary not follow as a matter of course. There are several reasons this might happen, however. In a caucus where the delegates to a higher level convention depend on careful paperwork, it may be highly desirable for a faction to try to elect a Secretary they know and trust, not just to be honest but careful and thorough. The Secretary position might also be used as a test vote where a faction does not wish to contest the Chair vote. As I mention above, you do not know in advance how many people will actually show up for a caucus and how their support will be divided. A test vote acts as a physical verification of the numbers for your group and can then be used to determine overall strategy ("Do we introduce our own slate?" "Do we try to introduce this platform amendment?"). In this case, whether the election is actually won is not as important as simply getting the firm count. If the election is merely a test vote, it is common for a faction to withdraw their candidate once it realizes it does not have a majority and will not win.

When I talk about 'faction' here, most people think in terms of candidate blocks. In the 2012 Lawrence County Republican Caucus, for example, their were five candidate blocks who showed up, two of which voted together. This left a four-way split of votes with no majority and, eventually, a four-way split on the delegate slate. The faction split does not have to be by candidate, however, and in 2024, there is unlikely to be any such split by presidential candidate. In some cases, this may result in a rapid caucus with votes by acclamation as occurred in Lawrence County in 2016. In other cases, local groups, such as a grassroots coalition or a strong pro-life group, for example, may wish to present their own Caucus officers and slates in order to secure delegate representation, particularly if they want to participate in platform debates or other Convention business at higher levels of the process. If this occurs, Caucus Chairs and group floor leaders ought to understand how to handle the votes fairly and smoothly. The ultimate goal is to come together as a party to win in November. Unnecessary strife detracts from that goal.


If our goal is to avoid unnecessary strife which may hurt us in November, it is worth spending the time to understand the rules and the different scenarious we may encounter. Prior to 2008 in Missouri, caucuses were rarely contested. This lead to waning parliamentary skills which, in turn, lead to avoidable conflict when participation dramatically increased and the process suddenly became contested. Some of these events-- as I show in my classes--- were ugly, others less so. The presence of conflict itself is not the problem: the entire purpose of a caucus/convention structure is to make difficult decisions between competing interests. It is well worth fighting over some of these things; we just need to be able to get through it fairly and come together afterwards.

* Ayes and Nays

When I say I am listing just the ayes for each vote above, keep in mind that when a voice vote, rising vote, show of hands, etc., is called, the Chair calls for the ayes first and then the nays, even in an election:

Chair: As many as are in favor of John Smith, please rise. [count]
You may be seated.
As many as are not in favor of John Smith, please rise. [count]
There are 13 in favor, 14 opposed, and 1 abstention. John Smith does not have a majority.
Now, as many as are in favor of...

This can seem odd to people. Why vote against a candidate instead of simply voting for your chosen candidate? This is possible when using a ballot vote because the voter can just list their choice out of all possible choices. There is no need to count nays. With a voice vote (see viva voce in Robert's Rules) or any other non-ballot vote, the nays must be counted for a crucial reason: any member may abstain from any vote. If a candidate must win by 50%+1 of votes cast, then one must know how many votes are actually cast in a given vote and separate it from the nays. In our example, one vote, the Chair. abstained leaving 27 votes cast each time and a majority of 14 or more. If even one other member had abstained on any vote, the threshhold needed for majority would have changed.

As noted in Robert's Rules, this means, effectively, that if you want to vote for a later candidate, you must vote against the earlier ones. A no vote must not be taken, therefore, as any special animus toward a particular candidate, but only that the member intends to hold their vote for someone else (that round). The only other way to make the math work is to count the abstentions and subtract them from the seated total. I have seen a few Chairs specifically count abstentions, but it is often done to check tally committee math when the count seems off. I am not aware of any inherent unfairness to counting abstentions.

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