Baha’i Elections – How to Improve Them – part II

First, a bit of news from the Baha’i community of the United States
(click here for original PDF document):

NATIONAL SPIRITUAL ASSEMBLY
OF THE
BAH??’??S OF THE UNITED STATES

May 18, 2007

To the American Baha’i community

Dear Baha’i Friends,

With feelings of deep loss, profound admiration, and enduring gratitude, we announce the retirement of Mr. William E. Davis after 21 years of distinguished service as a member of the National Spiritual Assembly. Mr. Davis requested to retire at this time due to family and health concerns. His sterling record during his tenure on the Assembly, as its Treasurer and, later, as its Chairman, was characterized by devotion to principle, clarity of vision, and a true attitude of service.

Our dear brother Bill retires with our love and prayers that the blessings of Baha’u’llah will forever surround him and his precious
family.

The National Assembly will soon issue a call for a by-election.

With loving Baha’i greetings,

NATIONAL SPIRITUAL ASSEMBLY
OF THE BAH??’??S OF THE UNITED STATES

Kenneth E. Bowers
Secretary-General

*********

So it seems that there will be a change in the membership of the NSA – by force of the fact that an incumbent is retiring after 21 years!! I have nothing against Mr. Davis personally but I do question the sanity of any individual who would occupy a Baha’i institution for more than 2 decades and also the Baha’i community that would put them there year after year.

Which brings me to the exploration of Baha’i elections and why there is this tendency for incumbents to be elected year in and year out. That this is a fact of life for Baha’i communities all around the world is not up for debate. Anyone can verify it with the smallest amount of observation and research. In fact, the incumbency is evident not only globally, but at all levels: local (LSA), national (NSA) and international (House of Justice).

I’ll get to how we can hope to get out of this rut but first, why does it exist? Perhaps in understanding the current situation, we will come to some insight.

There are several reasons why this manner of ossification is afflicting the Bahai community. One is that simply being a member of the National Assembly acts as a defacto nomination. The current members are more visible to the community because of their elected role. They travel, visiting outlying communities as well as Haifa when them come back to give talks. In these talks they are introduced as ‘NSA member’ so and so. Their decisions, either collectively or individually (through an narrow portfolio) gives them a certain cachet other Baha’i individuals do not possess.

In local assembly elections there is similar dynamics at play. Albeit perhaps more implicit. For example, several communities that I have lived in mark the current assembly members names (with an asterisk) on the list of Baha’is eligible for election. Why this is done, I never understood. But it is undeniable that doing so makes those nine persons stand out from among the names on the list and can influence the outcome.

But I think the most important reason is the nature of Baha’i elections. Because there is no campaigning involved (well, some say the NSA members going around just before Ridvan visiting communities may be seen as a sort of quasi campaigning) and since there are no nominations of candidates, it is very difficult to give a platform to others to simply make them visible to the community. Also, it is mathematically difficult, to the point of impossibility, to ‘vote a person’ out of office.

Let me explain. You can’t vote against a person, only for another person. And when you vote for someone other than the current members of the assembly, your vote is in all probability diluted to the point of becoming meaningless. This is because more than not, the other members of the community who are voting with you, will not necessarily vote for the same other person as you. So what happens is that the same people still get elected but with far fewer votes. Since we do not have a condition where you must be elected by having a certain portion of the votes, theoretically the same 9 people can win with only a tiny fraction of the votes each.

In fact this isn’t simply a theory but what is happening right now. I’ll use the actual results for the recent LSA election of one of the largest Baha’i communities in North America. There were 1430 eligible voters and 385 ballots cast. While the top person received 205 votes, 3 elected members of the new LSA received less than 85 votes.

If we were to draw a graph to illustrate all the votes it would look something like this:

bahai-elections-and-incumbency-how-to-improve-them

The leftmost part of the graph (in red) would be those 9 persons who received the most votes. The green part of the graph would be the other members of the community. In fact, the drop off would be much steeper than is shown on this graph.

Sure, part of the problem lies in the small fraction of people who are voting: less than 30% of the community in the example used above. But is this a cause of the problem or a consequence of deeper issues? are people not participating because they feel powerless to have their voice heard? or is it simply apathy? should we blame them or the way the election is organized and administered?

The ways that we can hope to improve Baha’i elections would deal with the dynamic that this graph illustrates. I’ll explore specific suggestions and changes that will act to bring other candidates to the fore and “fatten” the tail. Until then, read the simple math behind the incumbency in Baha’i elections.

  • Sincere Friend

    I think Baha u llah knew what he was doing when he designed his governing system. The good thing about the fact that people get re elected is something that contributes to stability and the preservation of a corporate memory, both of which would be lost if there were alot of changes all the time in people who are on the assemblies. This also being one of the primary advantages of monarchies which Baha u llah and Shoghi Effendi admired.

    The chief concern of those who think that term limits should be imposed seems to be that old ideas keep getting recirculated and a group think sets in, a.k.a. as ossification. I dont think that term limits would solve the problem that you perceive, but rather invigorating the consultative process by taking a more mulitmedia approach so that everyone is able to contribute something all the time on every issue. This is how really successful businesses thrive is through opening lots of communication channels with customers, clients, vendors, neighbors and acting quickly on the suggestions. Its well within the technological capacity now for every community to have a wiki, a video upload site, etc., etc. Even those who prefer to write can have their letters posted on the other media, and notified by cell phone when something new comes up. I dont know of any community that has tried that yet but its about time.

    Also organizing ad hoc committees around worthy initiatives that serve the good of the community, after all we do have the right to associate and committees can be formed from the community, the assemblies dont have to approve them or create them, although I realize that some think that they do and often the assemblies do form them. Also the people that get up and serve usually get elected to the assemblies and then they become the new establishment.

    So it really is there if we choose to get in and work it. I dont think holding on to past hurts and complaining is really constructive. Sorry if this is touching on personal feelings but it seems to be the fundamental reason for most of those who become focused on criticism.

  • Sincere Friend

    I think Baha u llah knew what he was doing when he designed his governing system. The good thing about the fact that people get re elected is something that contributes to stability and the preservation of a corporate memory, both of which would be lost if there were alot of changes all the time in people who are on the assemblies. This also being one of the primary advantages of monarchies which Baha u llah and Shoghi Effendi admired.

    The chief concern of those who think that term limits should be imposed seems to be that old ideas keep getting recirculated and a group think sets in, a.k.a. as ossification. I dont think that term limits would solve the problem that you perceive, but rather invigorating the consultative process by taking a more mulitmedia approach so that everyone is able to contribute something all the time on every issue. This is how really successful businesses thrive is through opening lots of communication channels with customers, clients, vendors, neighbors and acting quickly on the suggestions. Its well within the technological capacity now for every community to have a wiki, a video upload site, etc., etc. Even those who prefer to write can have their letters posted on the other media, and notified by cell phone when something new comes up. I dont know of any community that has tried that yet but its about time.

    Also organizing ad hoc committees around worthy initiatives that serve the good of the community, after all we do have the right to associate and committees can be formed from the community, the assemblies dont have to approve them or create them, although I realize that some think that they do and often the assemblies do form them. Also the people that get up and serve usually get elected to the assemblies and then they become the new establishment.

    So it really is there if we choose to get in and work it. I dont think holding on to past hurts and complaining is really constructive. Sorry if this is touching on personal feelings but it seems to be the fundamental reason for most of those who become focused on criticism.

  • Connie

    “I dont think holding on to past hurts and complaining is really constructive. Sorry if this is touching on personal feelings but it seems to be the fundamental reason for most of those who become focused on criticism.”

    Dear Sincere Friend,

    I think you have hit on something here. In my opinion, the very thing that is lacking in the Baha’i community/culture is the allowance for expression about personal feelings and the space to heal. I believe you are correct that indeed it is past hurts that leads to criticism…and yet the Faith does not offer a channel for Baha’is to work through their spiritual challenges. Forgiveness is always a process that requires the individual to understand how they have been hurt. I cannot believe how many times I’ve heard Baha’is speak of forgiveness as a simple decision that can happen with the click of a button. It seems so similar to the old “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” type of mentality. It would be like telling an abused child they should “just get over it”. We can tell ourselves that is possible, but it just isn’t. That child will just bury the anger and it will leak out in all sorts of ways. IMO it is much better to recognize our anger and speak about how we feel. Much more honest and what is needed in this age.

    I commend Baquia for his honesty and personally look forward to it.

  • Connie

    “I dont think holding on to past hurts and complaining is really constructive. Sorry if this is touching on personal feelings but it seems to be the fundamental reason for most of those who become focused on criticism.”

    Dear Sincere Friend,

    I think you have hit on something here. In my opinion, the very thing that is lacking in the Baha’i community/culture is the allowance for expression about personal feelings and the space to heal. I believe you are correct that indeed it is past hurts that leads to criticism…and yet the Faith does not offer a channel for Baha’is to work through their spiritual challenges. Forgiveness is always a process that requires the individual to understand how they have been hurt. I cannot believe how many times I’ve heard Baha’is speak of forgiveness as a simple decision that can happen with the click of a button. It seems so similar to the old “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” type of mentality. It would be like telling an abused child they should “just get over it”. We can tell ourselves that is possible, but it just isn’t. That child will just bury the anger and it will leak out in all sorts of ways. IMO it is much better to recognize our anger and speak about how we feel. Much more honest and what is needed in this age.

    I commend Baquia for his honesty and personally look forward to it.

  • http://www.bahairants.com Baquia

    SF,
    The belief that everything in Baha’i administration (incl. the manner of Baha’i elections) is set in stone is a fallacy. One deserving of its own “A Little Known Fact” perhaps.

    We can and have changed elements of BA.This is one of the strengths of the Baha’i Faith. The light remains the same but the shape and form of the lamp may change. Those that worship idols will be mislead to focus on the lamp while those that strive to see the essence will focus on the light.

    As to your conjecture regarding my motivations, they are just that: conjecture. I recognize it as a distraction technique. Often when we aren’t willing or able to look at the facts of a matter we will try to deflect by pointing away from it. I’d prefer to focus on the topic at hand.

    Rather than throw dispersions why not address the ideas? Is this not the ideal of Baha’i consultation we all must strive towards?

  • http://www.bahairants.com Baquia

    SF,
    The belief that everything in Baha’i administration (incl. the manner of Baha’i elections) is set in stone is a fallacy. One deserving of its own “A Little Known Fact” perhaps.

    We can and have changed elements of BA.This is one of the strengths of the Baha’i Faith. The light remains the same but the shape and form of the lamp may change. Those that worship idols will be mislead to focus on the lamp while those that strive to see the essence will focus on the light.

    As to your conjecture regarding my motivations, they are just that: conjecture. I recognize it as a distraction technique. Often when we aren’t willing or able to look at the facts of a matter we will try to deflect by pointing away from it. I’d prefer to focus on the topic at hand.

    Rather than throw dispersions why not address the ideas? Is this not the ideal of Baha’i consultation we all must strive towards?

  • http://www.bahairants.com Baquia

    Thank you for your kind words Connie.

    I do agree with you. The current Baha’i Faith doesn’t really allow for the expression of anything but saccharin platitudes.

    Evenso, I’d prefer to focus on ideas of how we can improve our communities and ourselves. That is my ultimate goal.

  • http://www.bahairants.com Baquia

    Thank you for your kind words Connie.

    I do agree with you. The current Baha’i Faith doesn’t really allow for the expression of anything but saccharin platitudes.

    Evenso, I’d prefer to focus on ideas of how we can improve our communities and ourselves. That is my ultimate goal.

  • Sincere Friend

    Yes I agree, there needs to be a way that when feelings are hurt due to whatever cause, they can be addressed in a way that doesnt lead to further hurt feelings or escalation of the process of 1-assumption(i.e. “Oh they dont care about me…or the Faith, etc.”), 2-accusation, and 3-alienation.

    I dont think that the cultures that we all come from have very good ways to accomplish that, so its something that will probably have to be developed in some way. Maybe something intensive like the Black mens gathering but for people that really feel like they have been hurt by the Faith. Or something borrowed from some indigenous culture, who seem to have developed some very good ways to maintain social harmony in their small communities.

    There is no doubt about it, the human administration of religion does impose some kinds of psychological stress that can lead to emotional damage and pain.

    So what can we do?

  • Sincere Friend

    Yes I agree, there needs to be a way that when feelings are hurt due to whatever cause, they can be addressed in a way that doesnt lead to further hurt feelings or escalation of the process of 1-assumption(i.e. “Oh they dont care about me…or the Faith, etc.”), 2-accusation, and 3-alienation.

    I dont think that the cultures that we all come from have very good ways to accomplish that, so its something that will probably have to be developed in some way. Maybe something intensive like the Black mens gathering but for people that really feel like they have been hurt by the Faith. Or something borrowed from some indigenous culture, who seem to have developed some very good ways to maintain social harmony in their small communities.

    There is no doubt about it, the human administration of religion does impose some kinds of psychological stress that can lead to emotional damage and pain.

    So what can we do?

  • Sincere Friend

    Yes the Light is marvelous. In it are all the answers that we seek.

    I was not commenting or guessing so much on your motives but as a general observation of why people become disenchanted. It applies within and outside of this Faith.

  • Sincere Friend

    Yes the Light is marvelous. In it are all the answers that we seek.

    I was not commenting or guessing so much on your motives but as a general observation of why people become disenchanted. It applies within and outside of this Faith.

  • Reader

    “To improve” is rightly said. But as to the election/voting patterns it seems to me that the arguments revolve more around the theme: Change just for the sake of change, especially because worldwide there are more communities with small number of believers; in those cases the author admits there is even anti-incumbency.

    I think the election process allows any outstanding individual with the necessary qualities to be elected. Now, we focus on that, personal transformation and spiritual growth. The further we go on this path, the better we’ll serve on the Assemblies. Hence, need not to worry about incumbency.

    And one last thing – 19 day feasts should provide input of ideas and consultation with Assemblies. Now how effectively do we use our Feasts? We just too much wait on our Assemblies to do things for us. Enough said… good day to you all.

  • Reader

    “To improve” is rightly said. But as to the election/voting patterns it seems to me that the arguments revolve more around the theme: Change just for the sake of change, especially because worldwide there are more communities with small number of believers; in those cases the author admits there is even anti-incumbency.

    I think the election process allows any outstanding individual with the necessary qualities to be elected. Now, we focus on that, personal transformation and spiritual growth. The further we go on this path, the better we’ll serve on the Assemblies. Hence, need not to worry about incumbency.

    And one last thing – 19 day feasts should provide input of ideas and consultation with Assemblies. Now how effectively do we use our Feasts? We just too much wait on our Assemblies to do things for us. Enough said… good day to you all.

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