Voting methods in deliberative assemblies

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Deliberative assemblies – bodies that use parliamentary procedure to arrive at decisions – use several methods of voting on motions (formal proposal by a member or members of a deliberative assembly that the assembly take certain action).

Voice votes, rising votes (divisions), shows of hands, and recorded votes[edit]

Robert's Rules of Order Newly Revised (RONR) states that a voice vote (viva voce) is the regular method of voting on any motion that does not require more than a majority vote for its adoption.[1]

A simple rising vote (in which the number of members voting on each side are counted) is used principally in cases in which the chair believes a voice vote has been taken with an inconclusive result, or upon a motion to divide the assembly. A rising vote is also the normal method of voting on motions requiring a two-thirds vote for adoption. It can also be used as the first method of voting only a majority vote is required, if the chair believes in advance that a voice vote will be inconclusive.[1] The chair can also order the vote to be counted.[2]

A show of hands is an alternate to voice voting and can be used as the basic voting method in small boards or committees, and it is so used in some assemblies.[2]

A recorded vote is a vote in which the votes (for or against) of each member of the assembly are recorded (and often later published). RONR explains:

Taking a vote by roll call (or by yeas and nays, as it is also called) has the effect of placing on the record how each member, or sometimes each delegation, votes; therefore, it has exactly the opposite effect of a ballot vote. It is usually confined to representative bodies, where the proceeds are published, since it enables constituents to know how their representatives voted on certain measures. It should not be used in a mass meeting or in any assembly whose members are not responsible to a constituency.[3]

Recorded votes may either be taken by actually calling the roll (a task typically ordered by the chair and performed by the secretary) or, in some assemblies, by electronic device.[4]

Voting systems in legislatures[edit]

Many legislative bodies use electronic voting systems for recorded votes.

United States House of Representatives[edit]

In 1869, Thomas Edison filed for a patent on the first electronic vote recorder, and demonstrated the system to the United States Congress.[5] The first proposal for automated voting in Congress was made in 1886.[5] Over the next 84 years, fifty bills and resolutions to establish an automatic, electrical, mechanical, or electronic voting system in Congress were introduced.[5] The Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970 authorized electronic voting for the first time.[5] Electronic voting was first used in the House on January 23, 1973, to record a quorum call.[5]

Under the system implemented in the 1970s, members of the House may vote at any one of a number of stations located throughout the chamber. Each member has a small plastic card, punched identically on either end.[5] To cast a vote, the representative inserts into the station in any direction and presses one of three buttons: "Yea," "Nay," or "Present."[5]

The representative's vote is then displayed in two summary panels above the press gallery seats and to the right and left of the speaker's dais. The panel shows the member's name and a light corresponding to how that member voted (green for yea, red for nay, and amber for present), keeps a running count of vote casts, and displays time remaining for a vote (most votes are held open for at least fifteen minutes).[5] The system as used today is much the same as that used in the 1970s, although today, member's voting cards are magnetic stripe cards that contain identification information.[5] Once a representative has voted, he or she may check the vote by reinserting the card and seeing which light is illuminated at the voting station.[5] For the first ten minutes of a vote, a representative may also change his or her reinsert the card to change the vote.[5] If a representative wants to change his or her vote in the last five minutes of a fifteen-minute vote, the representative must use as teller card in the well of the House.[5] A tally clerk then manually enters the vote into the electronic voting system.[5]

In 1977, the electronic voting system was updated to be compatible with the House's newly installed closed-circuit television system showing the House chamber. The updates enabled in-progress voting counts to be displayed on the closed-circuit TV system.[5] In-progress vote counts are now also shown on C-SPAN.[5]

United States Senate[edit]

The three means of voting in the Senate are voice, division, and "the yeas and nays" (recorded votes or roll-call votes).[6]

On a voice vote, the presiding officer first asks those in favor to say "aye," and then opposed to say "no."[6] The presiding officer then announces who appeared to win the vote ("The ayes [noes] appear to have it.").[6] One variation of a voice vote is the for the presiding officer to state: "Without objection the amendment [bill, resolution, motion, etc.] is agreed to [or not agreed to]."[6] If any senator objects to the presiding officer's determination, a vote will occur by another method (usually a recorded vote).[6]

A division vote (taken by having each side stand) is rare in the Senate, but may be requested by any senator or ordered by the presiding officer if the outcome of the voice vote is doubtful.[6] Like the voice vote, a division does not provide a record of how each senator voted. The chair announces the result of a division vote. As in a voice vote, any senator may ask for a recorded vote.[6]

The third method is a recorded vote ("the yeas and nays"), currently take by a roll call.[6] The clerk calls the roll of senators alphabetical by name, and each Senator individually responds.[6] Following the call, the clerk then identifies those who voted in the affirmative and those in the negative.[6] The time limit for roll-call votes is nominally fifteen minutes as set by unanimous consent at the start of a two-year Congress, but votes are sometimes held open for longer so that senators may arrive.[6]

Unlike the House, the Senate does not use electronic voting.[6][7] In December 2013, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid suggested that he would not be opposed to setting up an electronic system similar to that used in the House, but also stated that he didn't see any change occurring "in the near future."[7] Use of electronic system would make it possible for the Senate to vote more quickly during "vote-a-rama" sessions on amendments to budget resolutions.[7]

S. Res. 480, a Senate resolution passed in 1984, created a standing order of the Senate requiring that each senator vote from his or her assigned desk. The resolution was sponsored by Democratic Senator Jennings Randolph of West Virginia. However, the rule is widely ignored, and senators typically vote while milling about the Senate chamber. All senators do vote from their desks, however, when asked to do so by the Senate majority leader. This typically is done on particularly solemn or important votes. The Senate Historical Office maintains a list of occasions when senators voted from their desks: these included the passage of the Affordable Care Act and Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act; the confirmation votes of Supreme Court justices; and votes on articles of impeachment.[8][9][10]

State legislatures[edit]

The Wisconsin State Assembly chamber, with the electronic vote board on the wall. In 1917, the Wisconsin State Assembly became the first state legislative chamber to adopt an electronic voting system.

Many state legislatures use electronic voting systems for recorded votes. The first state legislative chambers to install electronic voting systems were the Wisconsin State Assembly (1917), Texas House of Representatives (1919), and Virginia House of Delegates (1923).[11] Electronic voting systems continued to spread, and by 1980, nearly half of legislatures used such a system.[11]

Today, almost two-thirds of the legislative bodies have installed electronic voting systems.[11] About 40 percent of chambers have made updates to their system since 1990.[11]

Electronic voting systems typically have voting controls at the front desk and running vote total displays.[11] The National Conference of State Legislatures has reported on various differences in state electronic voting-systems:

  • In more than half of chambers, the clerk or secretary opens and closes the roll-call system. In seventeen chambers, the presiding officer opens and closes the system; in five chambers, the reading clerk opens and closes the system, and in nine chambers, some other legislative staffer opens and closes the system.[11]
  • In 36 chambers, electronic roll-call votes are not subject to change. In one-third of chambers, however, changes are allowed if requested at the time of the vote. Seventeen chambers allow a roll-call vote to be changed upon a member's request at a later time.[11]
  • In 42 chambers, a running vote total is displayed to the chamber; running vote totals appear on the presiding officer's monitor in 62 chambers and on the clerk's monitor in 59.[11]

More sophisticated electronic voting systems are sometimes linked to other technology to assist the legislatures in their work:

  • In 48 chambers, the voting system is linked to journal production.[11]
  • In 40 chambers, the voting system is linked with the calendar.[11]
  • In 24 chambers, the system has a debate timer.[11]
  • In ten chambers, the presiding officer has a monitor displaying which legislators wish to speak and the order of the requests.[11]

A minority of state legislative chambers do not use an electronic voting system. Fourteen chambers use a traditional manual roll-call system in which the clerk calls the roll orally, records each member's vote on paper, and then tallies the ayes and nays.[11] Twelve chambers use a hybrid system in which the clerk orally calls the roll, but each member's vote in then entered into a computerized system.[11]

Parliament of the United Kingdom[edit]

In the Parliament of the United Kingdom, at the close of debate, the presiding officer of the chamber—the speaker of the House of Commons and the lord speaker of the House of Lords—will "puts the motion" by asking members to call out their votes, typically saying "As many of you as are of that opinion will say 'Aye.'" The supporters of the measure shout "aye." The presiding officer then says, "The contrary, 'No,'" and the opponents of the measure shout "no." The chair then makes a determination of which side has won ("I think the Ayes [or Noes] have it.").[12][13]

Any member of the house may then challenge the decision of the speaker or lord speaker and call for a division of the house, or the speaker himself may call for a division.[12][13] Once a division is called, the order "Clear the Lobby" is given in the Commons ("Clear the Bar" in the Lords), and "division bells" ring out throughout the Parliamentary Estate to alert members that a vote is to take place.[12][13] Members then physically separate themselves into the division lobbies, which are called Aye and No lobbies in the Commons (on the speaker's right and left, respectively), and the Contents and Not Contents lobbies in the Lords.[12][13] As members pass through the lobbies, clerks record their names and they are counted by tellers.[12][13] Members have eight minutes to vote before the doors to the division lobbies are locked.[13] In the Commons, the tally is complete, the tellers approach the presiding officer and announce the tally, and then the speaker or lord speaker announces the result.[12][13]

Proposals to adopt electronic voting in Parliament have been considered, but have not been adopted.[13]

European Parliament[edit]

In the European Parliament, decisions are usually made by show of hands.[14] If the show of hands leads to a doubtful result, the vote is taken by standing and sitting.[14] If this, too, leads to a doubtful result, the vote is taken by roll call. (A roll-call vote is also taken if any political group or any 21 members request).[14] The president of the European Parliament may also decided to hold a vote using the Parliament's electronic voting system, which was first used in December 1979.[14] Electronic voting systems are installed in both of the European Parliament's two locations: Strasbourg and Brussels.[14]

Russian State Duma[edit]

In the Russian State Duma, relatively few roll call votes have been published that identify individual deputies' votes.[15] The votes of individuals are recorded only if the voting is open and the electronic method is used.[15] While not all votes are officially roll call votes, every time a deputy electronically votes a computer registers the individual deputy's vote.[16]


Preferential voting[edit]

Robert's Rules of Order recommends the use of repeated balloting to obtain a majority vote for the winning candidate in elections for officers in which the assembly is physically gathered together. Robert's Rules of Order characterize preferential voting as a "more complicated" system that "affords less freedom of choice than repeated balloting, because it denies voters the opportunity of basing their second or lesser choices on the results of earlier ballots, and because the candidate or proposition in last place is automatically eliminated and may thus be prevented from becoming a compromise choice."[17]

However, in cases in when the assembly cannot be gathered physically together, Robert's Rules of Order views preferential voting as superior to plurality voting, noting, "In an international or national society where the election is conducted by mail ballot, a plurality is sometimes allowed to elect officers, with a view to avoiding the delay and extra expense that would result from additional balloting under these conditions. A better method in such cases is for the bylaws to prescribe some form of preferential voting"[18] and that "in such cases it makes possible a more representative result than under a rule that a plurality shall elect."[19] Other alternative voting systems can only be used if the bylaws specifically authorize it.[19]

Riddick's Rules of Procedure states that preferential voting is "a complicated, time-consuming system susceptible to miscalculation–actually, a mathematical game. Tellers should be fully instructed in the selected voting method. There is no reason to use preferential voting except in a mail ballot, where it is expensive and impractical to reballot. Preferential voting may only be used if authorized in the bylaws, accompanied with detailed instructions for the method to be used."[20]

Cumulative voting discouraged[edit]

RONR states, "A minority group, by coordinating its effort in voting for only one candidate who is a member of the group, may be able to secure the election of that candidate as a minority member of the board. However, this method of voting, which permits a member to cast multiple votes for a single candidate, must be viewed with reservation since it violates the fundamental principle of parliamentary law that each member is entitled to one and only one vote on a question".[21] An assembly cannot suspend the rules to authorize cumulative voting.[22] TSC similarly states, "Cumulative voting is not permitted unless specifically authorized in the bylaws," but has nothing else to say on it, beyond a brief description of how it works.[23]

Runoffs discouraged[edit]

RONR repeatedly discourages runoffs because they may prevent a compromise candidate from emerging. The book states, "The nominee receiving the lowest number of votes is never removed from the ballot unless the bylaws so require, or unless he withdraws – which, in the absence of such a bylaw, he is not obligated to do. The nominee in lowest place may turn out to be a 'dark horse' on whom all factions may prefer to agree".[24]

Impropriety of Limiting Voting in the Election to the Two Leading Candidates. In some organizations using the nominating ballot, an attempt is made to limit the voting on the electing ballot to the two nominees for each office receiving the highest number of votes on the nominating ballot. This – or any attempt to limit the number of candidates for an office to two, by whatever method they are nominated – is an unfortunate practice and should be avoided. Often the two leading candidates for a position will represent two different factions, and division within the organization may be deepened by limiting the election to them. On the other hand, it may be possible to unite the members if the assembly has the choice of a compromise candidate".[25]

Electing multiple candidates[edit]

Candidates with the lowest vote count are eliminated until the number of candidates remaining is reduced to the number needed to fill the open positions.

Repeated balloting[edit]

Repeated balloting is a voting system in which a candidate who achieves the voting basis (usually a majority of votes cast) is elected; otherwise, voting is repeated, with no candidates involuntarily eliminated. In legislative and parliamentary procedure, this is usually the default system of voting. For instance, Mason's Manual notes, "In the absence of a special rule, a majority vote is necessary to elect officers and a plurality is not sufficient. A vote for the election of officers, when no candidate receives a majority vote, is of no effect, and the situation remains exactly as though no vote had been taken."[26] And Robert's Rules of Order states that neither alternate voting systems such as plurality,[18] preferential,[19] and cumulative voting[27] nor elimination of last-place candidates[28] is allowable unless stated in the bylaws; thus, if the bylaws say nothing, the assembly must use majority voting with repeated balloting. But even a plurality election can sometimes require repeated balloting; Demeter's Manual notes, "The fact that a majority (or a plurality) of the votes are cast for an ineligible candidate does not entitle the candidate receiving 'the next highest number of votes' to be declared elected. In such case, the voters have failed to make a choice, and they proceed to vote again."[29]

An advantage of this system is that it allows a dark horse or compromise candidate, who received few votes in the first round, to become the candidate that opposing factions agree to settle on.[28] Moreover, it can prevent a candidate who is opposed by the majority of the electorate from being elected, as might happen under plurality.[30] A disadvantage is that if no one drops out of the race, and the voters are unwilling to switch sides, balloting can theoretically go on forever. The U.S. Presidential election of 1800 used repeated balloting and took 36 ballots to decide.

Between rounds of balloting, members can make motions to help the assembly complete the election within a reasonable time. For instance, the assembly may vote to drop the candidate having the lowest vote after each successive vote, or reopen nominations for the office in order to secure a candidate on whom the majority can agree. This can help break a deadlock.[31]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Robert, Henry M. (2011). Robert's Rules of Order Newly Revised, 11th ed., p. 45-46
  2. ^ a b RONR, p. 47
  3. ^ RONR, § 45, p. 420.
  4. ^ RONR, § 45
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Jacob R. Straus, Electronic Voting System in the House of Representatives: History and Evolution, Congressional Research Service (Feb. 11, 2008).
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Walter J. Oleszek, Voting in the Senate: Forms and Requirements, Congressional Research Service (May 19, 2008).
  7. ^ a b c Niels Lesniewski, Voting by Electronic Device — in the Senate?, Roll Call (December 4, 2013).
  8. ^ Sean Sullivan, All 100 Senators voted on the immigration bill from their desks. That's a rarer occurrence than you might think, Washington Post (June 28, 2013).
  9. ^ Voting from Desk in the Senate Chamber, Senate Historical Office.
  10. ^ Richard Cowan & Thomas Ferraro, Senate passes sweeping immigration legislation, Reuters (June 27, 2013).
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Roll Call Voting Machines and Practices, National Conference of State Legislatures.
  12. ^ a b c d e f E. E. Reynolds, Ourselves and the Community (Cambridge University Press, 3d ed. 1950), pp. 125-26.
  13. ^ a b c d e f g h Divisions, Parliament of the United Kingdom.
  14. ^ a b c d e Michael Palmer, The European Parliament: What It Is, What It Does, How It Works (Pergamon: 1981), pp. 91, 94.
  15. ^ a b Chandler, Andrea (2004). Shocking Mother Russia: Democratization, Social Rights, and Pension Reform in Russia, 1990-2001. University of Toronto Press. p. 97. ISBN 0-8020-8930-5. 
  16. ^ Ostrow, Joel M. (2000). Comparing Post-Soviet Legislatures: A Theory of Institutional Design and Political Conflict. Ohio State University Press. pp. 24–25. ISBN 0-8142-0841-X. LCCN 99-059121. 
  17. ^ RONR, p. 428
  18. ^ a b RONR, p. 405
  19. ^ a b c RONR, p. 423
  20. ^ Riddick & Butcher (1985). Riddick's Rules of Procedure, p. 145
  21. ^ RONR, p. 443-444
  22. ^ RONR, p. 263
  23. ^ Sturgis, Alice (2001). The Standard Code of Parliamentary Procedure, 4th ed., p. 246
  24. ^ RONR, p. 441
  25. ^ RONR, p. 437
  26. ^ National Conference of State Legislatures (2000). Mason's Manual of Legislative Procedure, p. 391
  27. ^ RONR, p. 443
  28. ^ a b RONR, p. 441
  29. ^ Demeter, George (1969). Demeter's Manual of Parliamentary Law and Procedure, Blue Book, p. 213
  30. ^ TSC, p. 135
  31. ^ TSC, p. 211

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