If you abstain from a vote, what happens?

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A council member called me recently with one of the most common errors people make about Robert’s Rules of Order.

She said, “We have a really controversial vote coming up, and if someone abstains, that counts as a ‘yes’ vote, right?”

vote-hands

No, it doesn’t.

Under Robert’s Rules of Order, you can vote “aye” or you can vote “no,” but you can’t vote “abstain.” To abstain is to do nothing. It is not a vote.

If you abstain, it can have different effects, depending on the situation that pertains.

Sometimes, to abstain has the effect of supporting the majority position.

Example: Your 12-member board of directors is unhappy with the executive director and wants to fire him. Six members are in favor and five are opposed. You agree that he has made a mess of things, but you are a personal friend, so you abstain from voting. If you had voted “no,” the vote would have been six to six, a tied vote, and would have failed. Because you abstained, the executive director gets the sack.

Sometimes, to abstain has the effect of undermining the majority position.

Example: Your seven-member council is considering a new ordinance. Three members support it and vote “yes,” two oppose it and vote “no,” and two are undecided and abstain. In your state, an ordinance must receive a “yes” vote from a majority of the entire council. Three is a majority of the five votes cast, but it is not a majority of the full seven members, so the ordinance fails.

Sometimes, to abstain has no effect.

Example: You serve on a 21-member board of a local housing authority. They are considering a new rule banning pets in the facilities. 15 members vote in favor, five vote against. You abstain because you think that the board is micromanaging. If you had voted “yes” or you had voted “no,” neither vote would have made any difference. Your abstention has no effect.

People seem to be very confused on what “to abstain” means. Keep this little cheat-sheet handy, and you’ll be able to shed some light amidst the darkness. And if you have any particularly juicy instances, please don’t hesitate to share them with us!

61 Comments

  1. Steve Martin on October 11, 2015 at 12:18 pm

    If a five member council with one mayor. And a vote to not pay membership into and organization. And votes are as follows

    3- votes yes
    2-votes abstain
    1-no

    Do the yes votes carry the motion to not pay for the membership ?



    • Ann Macfarlane on October 13, 2015 at 8:03 pm

      Yes, according to Robert, in this situation the count is 3 votes in favor and one against. “Abstain” is not a vote. Three votes are a majority of four, so the motion passes.

      Some councils have adopted rules that “abstain” is a yes vote, or “abstain” is a no vote. In that case the outcome would be different. We recommend that councils process “abstain” the way that Robert does.



      • Steve Martin on October 14, 2015 at 12:10 pm

        Thanks

        Same as I read it



      • Diane Snell on October 13, 2016 at 11:08 am

        We have a clause in our Association that only allows us to increase membership fees with unanimous approval from all 28 members (gak). Our recent vote was 27 – ‘yes’ and one vote was abstained. Because the one member abstained from voting, can this be considered unanimous?



        • Ann Macfarlane on October 19, 2016 at 1:40 pm

          Diane, I hesitate to give an answer without reading the actual documents. If the text says “unanimous approval from all members,” then it seems that one abstention would mean that it is not unanimous. I am thinking here of the parallel case of “unanimous written consent in lieu of a meeting,” which you can read about here. In that case, one abstention scuppers the whole vote.



    • ed on December 25, 2015 at 7:23 pm

      3 is not a majority of 6



  2. Don Gerend on November 16, 2015 at 12:41 pm

    Ann, you stated that three is a majority of the four voting, but earlier you state that in our State you must have a majority of the entire council, so indeed three is a majority of the five member council.. In the case of a 5 member council plus a voting mayor, would you have to count 4 to be the majority of the 6 members?



    • Ann Macfarlane on November 16, 2015 at 1:03 pm

      Don, in Washington State, for a 5-member council with a separately elected “strong” mayor, the mayor votes to break a tie. The five members are the ordinary numbers making up the council, so three is a majority of five. The mayor’s vote comes in only when the council is tied. Does that answer your question?



      • Don Gerend on November 16, 2015 at 2:48 pm

        Yes, Ann, thank you.



  3. Len on April 12, 2016 at 9:15 pm

    In a vote if there two abstention in a six person vote how are the abstentions recorded. If there is a reason or are reasons for the abstentions that those abstaining wish to be recorded can those reasons become part of the minutes?



    • Ann Macfarlane on April 13, 2016 at 12:06 pm

      Len, this is an interesting question. First, Robert’s Rules says that “to abstain” is to do nothing and that you do not call for abstentions or record them. However, if you are referring to a public body, usually abstentions are recorded. The record might be something like this: Yes three, no one, abstain two. Second, if members are abstaining for reasons of conflict of interest, that should be recorded in the minutes. If they abstain for some other reason, and request that the reason be recorded, usually the body would allow that to happen. Unless your bylaws or rules say otherwise, it is a privilege of the body to decide what “extra” items go in the minutes.
      Does this help? Thanks for writing! Ann



  4. KimC on May 5, 2016 at 9:18 am

    We have a 3 member Board of Commissioners. At a meeting, one member is absent and we have a quorum of two members; a motion is made with one member voting in favor and one member abstaining. Does the motion carry with the single vote in favor? I assume the motion carries, as the single vote in favor is the majority vote of the members present and the abstention is not a vote.
    Thanks for any light you can shed.



    • Ann Macfarlane on May 5, 2016 at 11:39 am

      Dear Kim,
      It is not correct to say that one vote in favor is the majority vote of the MEMBERS PRESENT. A “majority” is more than half, whereas one out of two is only half. So IF there is a requirement by statute or bylaws that a majority of the commissioners present must vote in favor, then the vote fails.
      However, the ordinary situation (the “default” if you will) under Robert’s Rules of Order is that it takes a majority of the VOTES CAST for motion to pass. If one member is absent, one abstains, and one votes in favor, then one vote is cast, and one is a majority (more than half) of one.
      This distinction between “votes cast” and “members present” is a tricky one. As always, you will want to know what the requirements are of your particular situation. Hope this helps clarify.
      Thanks for writing!
      Ann



      • Jonathan Luff on November 7, 2016 at 8:39 pm

        I have a similar question. 13 members are present at a general meeting. A recommendation is put to the membership from the committee to expel a member. The constitution requires that 60% or more of the membership be in favour of an expulsion for it to succeed. 7 were in favor of the motion, 5 abstained (1 may have not been in the meeting when the vote was proposed). Is the 60% expulsion threshold reached?



        • Ann Macfarlane on November 8, 2016 at 9:37 am

          Jonathan, does this mean that there are 13 members in all? If so, as I do the math, seven equals 54% of 13, so the threshold is not reached. This presumes that Robert’s Rules apply, where “to abstain” is to do nothing, and abstentions are not counted.
          If there are more than 13 members in all, then equally the threshold is not reached. “Sixty percent of the membership” is a high bar to reach..
          Sounds like a difficult situation…



  5. Geni on June 24, 2016 at 11:44 am

    How does the chair call for a vote and allow for abstentions? How does one abstain if not during the vote-taking?



  6. Geni on June 24, 2016 at 12:07 pm

    I commonly hear chairs calling for votes with,

    “All in favor, say aye. All opposed, so no. Any abstentions?”

    Is this acceptable practice for calling for a vote?



    • Ann Macfarlane on June 28, 2016 at 4:27 pm

      Robert’s Rules of Order says that you should not call for abstentions, since a member who abstains is not doing anything. However, I have found three circumstances where bodies prefer to do this: (1) if a member is abstaining for reasons of conflict of interest, that should be noted in the record; (2) on some nonprofit boards, people choose to abstain in order to make a political point, so they want the chair to inquire, and to have the result in the record, and (3) when a body takes a roll call vote, and a member abstains, that should be included in the record. Hope this helps!



  7. Ann on July 4, 2016 at 4:05 pm

    We recently conducted an election. Winner needed a majority plus one to win; Votes were as follow Candidate A 44 Candidate B 42 abstention 2 . Am I correct to state the winner needed 44 to get majority plus one because the total votes cast was 86 not 88 because abstention is not counted as a vote cast? If so where can I find proof in Roberts rule of order book.



    • Ann Macfarlane on July 18, 2016 at 2:59 pm

      Dear Ann,
      See Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised, 11th edition, page 400. “The word majority means “more than half”; and when the term majority vote is used without qualification…it means more than half of the votes cast by persons entitled to vote, excluding blanks or abstentions, at a regular or properly called meeting.” I am sorry to be so late in responding – due to a technical glitch I only saw your comment now. Hope this helps!



  8. Gail Johnson on July 20, 2016 at 4:11 am

    Hi Ann: can a motion be official if only the yes votes are called for? Here are details. 5 member council, motion made and seconded. Chair calls for those in favor receives 2 yes votes. Chair then states motion fails without calling for no votes.



    • Ann Macfarlane on July 24, 2016 at 8:43 am

      Gail, the rule that the chair must call for the negative vote is an ancient and important one. It is improper for the chair to call for the votes in favor and then declare the result, without calling for the negative. However, unless a member makes a “point of order” at the time, the chair’s statement stands. As soon as the body moves on to the next item of business, the chance to object is gone, and the official result is whatever the chair announced. Hope this helps!



  9. Yosef on July 30, 2016 at 6:54 pm

    Hi ann we 12 members have LLC company and our own bylaws agreement say majority vote 7 of 12 have interest with rental property and use majority for their property from $3,000 to $13,300. They 7 vot yes. We 5 vot abstain what’s u advice pls help me ASP thanks ann



    • Ann Macfarlane on August 1, 2016 at 10:09 am

      On a question like this, it would only be possible to give a definitive answer after reading the bylaws. Under Robert, to “abstain” is to do nothing. So generally, if seven votes are cast, and they are all in favor, that is a majority (seven out of seven), so the motion passes. Note that I am not an attorney and this is not legal advice! Good luck!



  10. Cornelius Ramatlhakwane on August 15, 2016 at 2:53 pm

    Can a chairman of a committee abstain from voting, and if they do, what does it mean in terms of their effectiveness? e.g. a chairman of an HR committee abstains from decision to make a recommendation to the board to appoint an Executive



    • Ann Macfarlane on August 16, 2016 at 12:46 pm

      Cornelius, yes, a chairman can abstain from voting. The chair might wish to do so in order to act more as a facilitator, or he might have personal reasons for abstaining.

      As to what it means in terms of their effectiveness, that is really a political question more than a parliamentary one. In the example you give, I would wonder if there was something going on underneath the surface. On the face of it, I would expect the chair of an HR committee to have an opinion about appointing an Executive, and to be willing to state that opinion.



  11. Angeline Boulley on September 8, 2016 at 4:13 pm

    Our Tribal Council conducts meetings using Robert’s Rules. Council members abstaining has become a popular tactic to avoid making a decision on controversial issues. Abstentions get called, not only on roll call votes but on all votes. The abstention in effect is a ‘soft no’ in that it gets counted as a no but the person abstaining can then say “I didn’t vote no” and gets a pass on being held accountable for the outcome. When I spoke with a Council member who uses this tactic (and stayed my opinion that abstentions should be used only for conflicts of interest), she said she uses the abstention because she believes “there should be another option for when there isn’t enough information to either support or oppose a motion.” Am I incorrect? Or have our tribal council members stumbled upon a perfect solution to avoid taking a stand?



    • Ann Macfarlane on September 9, 2016 at 7:01 pm

      Angeline, your members have stumbled on a solution to avoid taking a stand, with unfortunate consequences. When an individual is elected or appointed to an office, he or she has a responsibility to take appropriate action in the best interest of that organization. Of necessity this means that sometimes, decisions have to be made without enough information.

      Members who consistently abstain are shirking their responsibility and failing in their duty to the organization. There is no parliamentary answer. Robert’s Rules says that no one can force someone to vote or to abstain. You have two options: (1) pass a special rule of order requiring members to vote unless they have a conflict of interest (see our blog posting on this) or (2) appeal to duty, and ask people to recognize that passivity and inaction can lead to very bad outcomes.

      Good luck!



      • Angeline Boulley on September 9, 2016 at 7:39 pm

        Miigwetch niijii (thank you, friend) for your reply.



  12. Maree on September 29, 2016 at 4:01 pm

    What is the situation if seven are at a general meeting and they all vote abstain?



    • Ann Macfarlane on October 1, 2016 at 12:05 pm

      If the seven are all the members present, and they all abstain, then the motion fails.



  13. Wayne on October 13, 2016 at 9:58 am

    We have a committee that by tradition votes 100% consensus – everyone has to agree. Now, if I abstain from voting and everyone else votes yes, is it still a 100% yes vote?

    Our Terms of Reference do not have any clauses that define whether consensus is to be of all members, of those present or of those voting. The TOR do have a clause that says if a member can’t make the meeting, he will do his best to abide by the decisions made by the others in his absence. This is the only reference to voting.



    • Ann Macfarlane on October 19, 2016 at 1:38 pm

      Wayne, this is a tough question. Has your organization adopted Robert’s Rules? Robert says that any member has the right to abstain. Do you have any precedents to look at? If there is a similar case in the past, that might be persuasive. On the face of it, with no reference in the guidelines to this issue, it seems to me that if you abstain from voting, it should still count as a decision by the committee.



      • Wayne Overbo on October 24, 2016 at 2:50 pm

        Thanks Ann. I think we have adopted Robert’s Rules as we are employees of various Canadian federal and provincial governments. There’s no precedent in our committee for actually abstaining per se but we did have a situation some years ago where one member could not vote yes. The issue was referred to our oversight committee and it was resolved that way. But I’m trying to avoid that this time – if a member abstains and it’s still seen as a 100% consensus vote of yes, then they won’t feel the need to go to the oversight committee. Our TOR do say that if the member isn’t present, those present will make the decisions. To me abstaining is much the same as not being there in the first place.

        Any thoughts?

        Maybe this will be a test case …



        • Ann Macfarlane on October 25, 2016 at 1:51 pm

          Wayne, your comment makes sense to me. I agree that abstaining is much the same as not being there, so your interpretation seems reasonable. Good luck!



          • Wayne on November 3, 2016 at 2:34 pm

            Many thanks Ann!!!!



  14. Sasha on October 20, 2016 at 7:33 pm

    Hi Ann, thanks for this write-up! One quick clarifying question please: say there are 43 members of an organization in total (Quorum = 22). 18 vote Aye, 1 Nay, and 5 Abstain. Am I correct in saying that the motion fails? Thank you!



    • Ann Macfarlane on October 21, 2016 at 6:09 pm

      Sasha, the answer to your question will depend on whether there are any special requirements in your bylaws. Ordinarily, under Robert’s Rules of Order, a motion requires a majority of VOTES CAST to pass. In this case, 19 votes were cast, and 18 voted “Aye.” 18 is more than a majority of 19, so the motion passes. HOWEVER, there are two possible alternative scenarios:
      1) If the bylaws say, “A majority of voting members PRESENT,” then we are looking at 18 votes in favor out of 24 voting members present. This is still a majority, and the motion passes.
      2) If the bylaws say, “A majority of ALL THE VOTING MEMBERS,” then the motion would take 22 votes to pass, and the motion fails.

      Remember that “QUORUM” is different from “VOTES CAST” or “VOTES REQUIRED TO PASS.”

      Does this help?



      • Sasha on October 23, 2016 at 9:54 pm

        Hi Ann, this is extremely helpful – thank you!



        • Ann Macfarlane on October 24, 2016 at 10:51 am

          Great! Good luck!



  15. David G. on October 26, 2016 at 2:20 pm

    Hi Ann,
    Really enjoying this discussion. We have this language in the Trust document: “The decision of a quorum of trustees shall be determined by majority vote of the trustees present at the meeting.”
    Is the majority in reference to the “votes” or “members present”?

    If there are 8 trustees present and 4 vote yes and 4 abstain; does the motion pass?



    • Ann Macfarlane on October 26, 2016 at 3:51 pm

      Dave, so glad this is helpful. In the language you describe, the majority is determined with reference to the number of people who are there. So if eight trustees are present and only four vote in favor, the motion fails. Four is not a majority of eight.



  16. Eric hoeger on November 5, 2016 at 9:42 am

    Eric
    Our social club is buying property we are 111 members and a 3/4 majority vote is needed for approval. There will be blank ballots and abstain ballots how are they treated as yes or no votes.



    • Ann Macfarlane on November 7, 2016 at 9:34 am

      Eric, please note that this is just an educational answer, since without access to all the relevant documents it is impossible to give a definitive answer. You need to check the laws in your state, your articles of incorporation and your bylaws in order to work this out. Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised, 11th edition, says on page 400 that a majority means “more than half of the votes cast by persons entitled to vote, excluding blanks or abstentions, at a regular or properly called meeting.” Under Robert’s Rules a 3/4 vote would mean “at least 3/4 of the votes cast by persons entitled to vote, excluding blanks or abstentions, at a regular or properly called meeting.” Hope this helps!



  17. Rhonda on November 9, 2016 at 11:10 am

    Hi Ann –

    We have a 13 member board of director. The following scenario occurred at our last meeting. Does the motion carry?

    13 member board
    8 members attended the meeting
    6 members of the 8 present had to abstain on a vote due to a conflict of interest
    2 members without a conflict of interest voted in favor/approved of the motion.

    Is the motion approved?

    Thank you!



    • Ann Macfarlane on November 11, 2016 at 11:12 am

      Rhonda, is there a requirement in your bylaws, or in the laws of the state in which your organization is incorporated, that sets a minimum number of directors who must vote in favor for a motion to pass? For example, in Washington State, a MAJORITY OF THE DIRECTORS PRESENT must vote in favor for a nonprofit board to pass a motion. If your state has such a requirement, then the motion would fail, because two is not a majority of eight.

      As far as parliamentary rules go, the rule is that a MAJORITY OF VOTES CAST, excluding blanks or abstentions, is necessary for a motion to pass. Two is a majority (more than half) of two votes cast, so if those rules are the only ones that apply, the motion would pass.



  18. Ben Bond on December 7, 2016 at 6:12 am

    Hi Ann, we had a general meeting at our company there are 1000 shares, my mum has 200 shares and voted to abstain. My uncle has 200 shares and also voted to abstain. There are 400 shares in trust for me and my counsins which is controlled by two trustees, only one of the trustees were informed of the meeting and therefore signed the proxy form but not completed.The other 200 shares belong to my 3 cousins each of whom have 66 shares (including the 2 remaining) who filed a proxy to vote yes. The vote was passed in favor of the decision should this be correct.
    If you could help in anyway it would be much appreciated.



    • Ann Macfarlane on December 7, 2016 at 12:05 pm

      Ben, I’m so sorry but we do not provide services or advice to profit companies. You will need to talk to an attorney to sort this one out. Good luck!



  19. Charles B. on January 19, 2017 at 5:02 pm

    There is an 80 member group that requires a 2/3 vote to approve a motion.

    In favor: 58
    Opposed: 8
    Abstentions: 14

    Would the motion pass? Please explain why or why not. If the motion does not pass how do abstentions differ from the opposed. Thank you!



    • Ann Macfarlane on January 20, 2017 at 9:54 am

      Charles, if there are no other restrictions in the bylaws, yes, the motion would pass. Under Robert’s Rules of Order, you take the total number of valid votes cast as your starting point. That number is 58 plus 8, which gives us 64. Then you take the total number of valid votes in favor, namely 58. If you divide 58 by 64, the result is 91%. This is more than the requirement of 2/3 of the votes, so the motion passes.

      Robert says that to abstain is to do nothing. It is not a vote, so you just ignore the abstentions. In this case, to abstain does not affect or change the result. In some cases, to abstain has the effect of voting against, and in other cases, it has the effect of voting in favor. It all depends on the other numbers. Hope this helps!



  20. Gerard on February 11, 2017 at 1:14 am

    Our non for profit incorporation voted at AGM on important bylaws as ordinary resolution which is majority of vote casted.

    2 voted aye
    1 voted nay
    4 abstained.

    The quorum is 66% of 8 members, and 7 members are in attendance.
    Constitution says nothing else about absentee, or requiring minimum votes apart from quorum.

    Motion passed or fail?

    If failed, given it is a new bylaw which can be approved by executive board which intend to approve it unanimously following the AGM, is this okay? The board intend to vote on it anyway if motion passed or fail just in case.

    Thank you



    • Ann Macfarlane on February 13, 2017 at 1:27 pm

      Gerard, I am sorry but I would have to study the bylaws in order to be able to answer this question. Regret that I can’t help in this forum – Ann



  21. Jeff on April 4, 2017 at 2:12 pm

    Going back to the original question, isn’t the position that an abstain is a “soft no” incorrect? The abstain shouldn’t be counted as a no; it shouldn’t be counted at all.



    • Ann Macfarlane on April 4, 2017 at 5:35 pm

      Jeff, you have expressed the position exactly. Thank you!



  22. Jim on April 14, 2017 at 5:35 pm

    I have a question about a recent vote which occurred in my HOA. The vote is to increase an assessment, requiring an affirmative vote of members entitled to exercise a majority of the voting power of the association (where a majority of the voting power is 51% of the total votes cast by owners represented in person or by proxy at each meeting). Slips were give to each owner, with boxes to mark for “yea” or “nay”. At the bottom of the slip was the addition that all slips not returned would be considered a “yea” vote. However, the bylaws state that Roberts Rules of Order shall apply to all meetings/votes. The final results were 15 yea, 11 nay, 22 non-returned slips.

    Is it fair to say there is a discrepancy between the slips stating that a non-vote will count as “yea” vs Roberts Rules? Am I still to accept that the final count to be 15/26=57% in favor of the proposal, even given such a discrepancy? I feel as though, in future voting, such a practice of counting non-votes as “yea” votes can lead to quite a bit of misrepresentation of the association owners.

    Thanks!



    • Ann Macfarlane on April 15, 2017 at 12:58 pm

      Jim, in the situation as described, it was incorrect to state that all slips not returned would count as a “yea” vote. Given the bylaws statement that Robert’s Rules of Order governs, those votes should not have been counted at all. Good luck with bringing this to the attention of the leadership! Ann



  23. Dennis Downing on May 27, 2017 at 3:44 am

    Hi Ann we have a 5member board. We had a vote on school budget and 3 out of 5 is a majority. we had 2 absent and 3 voted. 2 voted yes and 1 abstain. Does the vote win or fail. On another question when your voting on a motion can a member vote si and have it count? Thank you Ann for your time.



    • Ann Macfarlane on May 27, 2017 at 9:52 am

      Dear Dennis,
      First off, are there any laws or regulations that say that a majority of the school board must vote in favor for a motion to pass? IF there is such a requirement, then the vote would fail, because two is less than a majority of five.
      If there are no requirements like that, then the vote would pass. Two votes are cast, and two people voted in favor, so a majority of the votes cast were in favor of the budget.
      With regard to your second question, we recommend that boards agree that they will vote “aye” if in favor, and “no” if against. This is the usual and customary way to vote under Robert’s Rules of Order. However, it is not an absolute requirement. If people indicate that they vote in favor by a different method, such as saying “si,” it seems to me that their vote would still be valid. It’s confusing, though, and I would recommend having a quiet conversation and asking the person to vote in the usual way.



  24. Joe Nikischer on June 6, 2017 at 6:27 am

    On a 9 member board, if 4 members vote yes on a motion and the other 5 do not vote does that mean they abstain and does the motion carry?



    • Ann Macfarlane on June 6, 2017 at 8:22 am

      Joe, if the 5 do not vote, yes, they are abstaining. If the 4 vote yes, under Robert’s Rules, that is sufficient for the motion to carry. HOWEVER sometimes there is a higher requirement in state law or in your bylaws, which must be observed over Robert’s Rules.

      For example, in Washington State, a majority of the directors of a nonprofit board who are present must vote in favor for a motion to pass. Four is not a majority of nine, so in Washington, the vote would fail.

      Good luck!



      • Joe Nikischer on June 6, 2017 at 8:29 am

        Thank You!!!!!!