The delegates of the 15th Baha’i National Convention elected the new members of the NSA for the United States. But to be fair, they are not all that new. Basically every single previous member was re-elected to the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the US (in descending order of votes received):
Kenneth E. Bowers
Juana C. Conrad
David F. Young
Jacqueline Left Hand Bull
S. Valerie Dana
Robert C. Henderson
Likewise, the delegates of the National Convention in Canada re-elected the exact same individuals to serve on the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Canada (in descending order of votes received):
Sadly, this pattern of electing the same people again and again has been going on for some time. The individuals on the NSA of Canada, for example, have on average 10 years of consecutive membership! And if there is any change, it is rare and small with one or perhaps two people changing at a time. In fact, over the past 16 years there has never been one instance of more than two individuals being changed in one year.
The results of this are apathy on the part of the general Baha’i community. The results of the election are a foregone conclusion before they take place and as such they are of no interest to the average Baha’i. And as apathy takes hold and less and less people vote, the effect of incumbency intensifies even further in a vicious cycle.
Apart from this negative effect on the community, the institution itself suffers as cliques form and individuals create and protect fiefdoms within their purview. Old time members naturally are more comfortable with old ideas and hostile to new ones. Even the wisp of fresh air brought in by the election of one new individual is overpowered by the musty stench of incumbency wafting from the other eight. And so, fresh ideas and insights are forfeit as group think takes hold.
Is there a way out of this quagmire? Yes, of course! But while it is simple it is not necessarily easy because many Baha’is today are more concerned with maintaining the status quo than addressing the shortcomings of community. The advice of the Guardian on the importance of “fresh blood” is disregarded in favor of not rocking the boat:
“As elections are by secret ballot only the education of the electorate can bring about changes on assemblies which often stagnate from lack of fresh blood…”
(From a letter on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States and Canada – March 31st 1945)
Beyond an educated electorate there are other steps that can be taken. For example, both term limits and a modification to the form of voting can completely eliminate incumbency.
But first, it is important to keep fresh in our minds that Baha’i Administration is an evolving organism. The one we see today in action around the world would not be recognized were we to travel back in time in a DeLorean to 1901. Most Baha’is do not realize that – for example- it took several decades for LSAs to be elected rather than appointed! And that even when they were democratically elected, only men were considered candidates.
Baha’i Administration was designed from the very beginning to be continuously modified and refined – recall that the Baha’i dispensation is for 1000 years and that the contingent needs of a constantly advancing civilization requires flexibility. Only those with closed minds bereft of any sense of history or knowledge about the Faith cling to the only thing they know and the only thing they have experienced so far in their own lives – afraid that anything different is “bad”.
The suggestion of term limits, for example, is but one small idea put forward in the spirit of consultation. The concept by the way is much older than the America government which has popularized the concept in the world today. In fact, the concept of term limits as old as the idea of democracy itself: Athenian citizens could only serve in the boule for two consecutive terms or two maximum terms in a lifetime. The founding fathers of the United States “borrowed” quite a bit from successful governing ideas from around the world and throughout history.
There are other ideas and methods of course – alternative voting methods for example. The important thing is to be open minded and enter into true Baha’i consultation about this issue.
For an interesting discussion of Baha’i elections, check out Sen McGlinn’s recent article: “Without Reference to Particular Individuals”