This is another installment of the “questions I get” articles. This month, the question is whether different forms of absentee voting is permissible, specifically proxy votes and votes taken by email.
The Presbyterian Church has certain essentials of its polity, most of which are spelled out in the Foundations of Presbyterian Polity section of the Book of Order. Chapter 3 of the Foundations includes two sections of principles spelled out in the late 1700’s: the Historic Principles of Church Order (1788) and the Principles of Presbyterian Government, first stated in 1797.
In the latter Principles, F-3.0205 states, “Decisions shall be reached in councils by vote, following opportunity for discussion and discernment, and a majority shall govern.” Any vote that is taken must allow for prior discussion and discernment.
Proxy voting does not allow for such discernment. The General Assembly in 1988 said this about proxy voting: “The Book of Order does not provide for proxy vote, as it is not in accord with the tradition of the church. [It is] noted, however, that the civil law of some states may require proxy voting in congregational meetings of incorporated churches when corporate matters are being voted on.” The “tradition” noted in this quotation is F-3.0205, above, the requirement for prior discussion and discernment. Proxy votes, submitted in advance, are made without the benefit of any debate conducted during the meeting, and may be related to an issue that has been significantly changed by amendment. (By the way, to my knowledge Florida does not require proxy voting for corporate matters in churches.)
What about votes taken by email? The General Assembly has also addressed this, in 2004: “voting by e-mail is permissible only if there has been provision for deliberation, and the governing documents of the [council] provide for vote by mail or e-mail.” This authoritative interpretation is attached to F-3.0205 and connects to G-3.0105, the latter which requires meetings of councils to be conducted according to the most recent edition of Robert’s Rules of Order, Newly Revised (except where the Constitution provides otherwise).
Specifically, RONR says this about email votes: It is important to understand that, regardless of the technology used, the opportunity for simultaneous aural communication is essential to the deliberative character of the meeting. Therefore, a group that attempts to conduct the deliberative process in writing (such as by postal mail, e-mail, "chat rooms," or fax)—which is not recommended—does not constitute a deliberative assembly. Any such effort may achieve a consultative character, but it is foreign to the deliberative process as understood under parliamentary law. (Chapter IV, paragraph 9)
Attempting to conduct business by email raises a number of issues, beginning with the need to assure that the persons participating are actually the elected members of the body. Some members may have already responded to the initial email when someone else raises an issue that could affect the outcome. And, if the congregation’s bylaws do not define the process by which votes can be taken by email or other technologies, then the “meeting” is not authorized and is subject to challenge by church judicial process. These are among the reasons why RONR says such procedures are not recommended.
To summarize: · Proxy votes are not permitted.
· Email votes may be taken if the bylaws expressly permit it, and the opportunity for discussion by “simultaneous aural communication” has already occurred.
· Care should be taken to assure that the votes being cast are done by members of the session or committee, and not by someone else.
· If an email vote is taken, it may be wise to affirm the decision at the next meeting of the session or committee. Dan Williams Executive Presbyter / Stated Clerk