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