Counting a vote wrong is dangerous

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Updated November 18, 2022

Counting a vote wrong can land you in big trouble.

As readers know, the QUORUM is the minimum number of voting members who must be present for business to be done. Once you have your quorum in place, you can take action by discussion and voting. (Read “what is a quorum” here.) Here are four different ways of counting a vote.

Votes cast

The ordinary, default method is to count the VOTES CAST. So if 100 club members are present and 60 vote, it will take 31 votes (a majority = more than 50% = more than half of 60) for a motion to pass. If 15 board directors are present at a board meeting and 6 vote, it will take 4 votes (a majority of 6) for a motion to pass. Note that this means that a very small number of people make the decision for the entire board!

Members present

Sometimes a vote requires a MAJORITY OF THE MEMBERS PRESENT to vote in favor. This is a more difficult requirement to meet. If our 100 club members are present, it will take 51 votes (a majority = more than 50% = more than half of 100) for a motion to pass. If our 15 board directors are all present, 8 must vote in favor (a majority = more than 50% = more than half of 15) for the motion to pass.

Majority of entire body

A MAJORITY OF THE ENTIRE BODY is a hard requirement for large groups. If our club has 500 members, and 100 are present, the motion cannot succeed under this requirement because it would take 251 votes in favor to pass. It’s easier on a small body. If our board has 15 members, 8 must vote in favor (a majority = more than 50% = more than half of 15) for a motion to pass.

The “entire body” is usually considered to be actual live people holding office who are eligible to vote. For example, say your board consists of 15 people but 4 have resigned, so there are only 11 holding office. A “majority of the entire body” will be 6 people (a majority = more than 50% = more than half of 11).

Majority of fixed membership

A MAJORITY OF THE FIXED MEMBERSHIP is the strictest requirement of all. If our board has 15 members, but 7 have resigned, so there are only 8 holding office, a “majority of the fixed membership” will still be 8 people (a majority = more than 50% = more than half of 15).

Counting a vote wrong by me

These are subtle distinctions but they have consequences! In Washington State, for instance, under RCW 24.03.110  a MAJORITY OF DIRECTORS PRESENT must vote in favor for a motion to pass.

I had a sad personal experience of this when chairing a meeting of a 13-member board. Everyone was present, 6 voted in favor, 4 voted against, and 3 abstained. As chair I declared that the motion had passed, but it in fact it had failed, since 6 is not a majority of 13. It was not pleasant to discover this error. Be sure to get familiar with the laws of your state of incorporation governing your nonprofit board or local government body. Consult your attorney when in doubt.

What about “abstain” when counting a vote?

Note that under Robert’s Rules of Order, TO ABSTAIN is to do nothing. Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised, 12th edition, the only official and current version of Robert’s Rules, says that the chair should not count abstentions and that abstentions are not listed in the vote count. Sometimes, however, this is necessary, for example in local government, or when someone abstains for reasons of conflict of interest. Read our blog entry here for more on “abstaining.”

You can read about two-thirds votes here.

Finally, if you are voting by ballot, you will want to become familiar with Robert’s Rules of Order’s guidance on counting a vote, and what to do about blank or spoiled ballots. You can read all about voting in Chapter XIII of Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised, 12th edition.

What about “plurality”?

When there are 3 or more candidates in an election, and none of the candidates receives a majority, the candidate with the most votes has a PLURALITY. Under Robert’s Rules, a plurality does not elect, so another round of voting must be held. Some associations put into their bylaws that a plurality does elect, which you can do, but it might lead to a difficult situation for the individual who is expected to lead with only a minority of the membership behind him or her.

Note that under Robert’s Rules, you cannot drop the person with the least number of votes from the ballot, unless you have specific provisions authorizing this.

Do you have voting stories? Share them with us!

Related posts on quorum

What is a quorum and why does it matter?

Hopeless in Houston without a quorum

When is a quorum not enough?

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Ann Macfarlane

Ann G. Macfarlane is a Professional Registered Parliamentarian. She offers an interactive and user-friendly way to master the key points for effective, efficient and fair meetings. Her background as a diplomat and Russian translator enables her to connect with elected officials and nonprofit board directors and give them the tools they need for success. She is the author of Mastering Council Meetings: A guidebook for elected officials and local governments.