Well-Informed Electorate Take Two


your-vote-countsI’d like to talk about elections.

No, not the mind-numbing chaos of the current presidential elections—which will no doubt affect the congressional elections to come, and traumatize anyone old enough to grasp what’s going on. I’d like to talk about an election that my husband and I and our adult children took part in recently—the selection of a delegate whose mandate it will be to participate in the annual election of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States.

We received our ballots in the mail from the Baha’i National Center a month before the election took place. The voting materials consisted of two envelopes and a single blank piece of paper. One envelope has a place for the voter’s name and address (if you’re mailing it in); the other is featureless, except to note that it contains a delegate ballot. The sheet is blank because there are no nominees for delegate—every ballot is a write-in ballot. The unmarked inner envelope is to ensure that the ballot is secret.

Our family then attended the unit convention, which meant congregating with other Baha’is in our electoral area at the Baha’i Center in San Jose early on a Sunday morning. We had breakfast together and chatted, then gathered in the main hall where we quickly elected a convention chairman and secretary. Then we voted for our delegate to the National Convention in April.

The mechanics of a unit convention are simple: We pray, there is music (this year my husband, Jeff, and I did the honors), then we are reminded about the qualifications/qualities to look for in those we choose to serve in this capacity: people who combine such qualities as unquestioned loyalty, selfless devotion, a well-trained mind, recognized ability and mature experience. There are also ideal qualities that we aspire to as members of the electorate. Ideally, we have become acquainted with both the principles of our faith and the people we elect, so that we can get a sense of the qualities they possess. Then, we are to cast our votes with thoughtful consideration of those qualities, but without passion or prejudice, or regard for material concerns.

bahai062007_59The same criteria is used when Baha’i communities all over the world elect their Local Spiritual Assemblies; the gatherings held to participate in the process look much the same. The difference here is that instead of one blank on a ballot sheet, there are nine, and each Baha’i votes directly for the members of their Assembly. When our delegate goes to Wilmette, Illinois, to cast a ballot for the nine members of the National Spiritual Assembly, the same process will be followed: nine blank slips upon which each delegate will write the names of those they believe have the qualities I mentioned above.

How do we nominate those we vote for? We don’t. Every adult Baha’i in the electoral unit, from the local to international level, is eligible to serve. As there is no nomination, so there is no campaigning, no electioneering, and no discussion of personalties. There are no political factions or parties, no policy platforms, no debates, and no warring constituencies. We elect every administrative body in this way—including the Universal House of Justice, which is the guiding body for the global Baha’i community.

This works. It’s been working since 1899 when the first elected Baha’i institutions came into being in Tehran, Iran and Chicago, Illinois.

Naturally, this sort of process requires that the electorate be well-informed about a number of things, including the qualities necessary for serving selflessly on a collaborative and consultative body and the character of the people from among whom the members of the institution must be drawn. This was an intentional design on the part of the Framer of the Baha’i Administrative order so that we have yet one more reason to know each other as members of an extended family.

But here’s the thing: while we are asked to acquaint ourselves with the qualities and character of our fellow Baha’is, we are not to discuss them except in the abstract. As I’m weighing my choices, I might have a dialogue with a family member about whether humility or self-confidence is more important in consultation. But for me to say to another Baha’i, ”I like Ike, but he’s not humble enough to serve on an assembly” or ”Gerta is great, but she’s not very assertive in consultation”, is a non-starter. And this system, in which every adult Baha’i is electable and the ballot secret, makes avoidance of that sort of discussion easier than in the greater republic’s current system. It is a process that demands participants demonstrate maturity—which means growth opportunities galore.

Seat of the Universal House of Justice

I’ve saved the best for last. At least, this was the aspect of Baha’i institutions that impressed me the most when I first encountered the Faith (actually, it excited me to the point of squeeing). Individuals who serve on Baha’i assemblies, whether at the local, national or international level, have no personal power or authority above or beyond what any other Baha’i has. The institution has the authority to handle the ordinary and extraordinary business of the community—from the establishment of educational activities to paying the mortgage on a Baha’i Center (in communities fortunate enough to have one) to protecting members of the community from harm (which is more difficult in some countries than others)—the individual members have none.

So, as our unit elected our delegate to the national convention and consulted together about what we would like the assembled delegates and the incoming National Assembly to consider, we were all intensely aware of the utter chaos and hostility taking place around elections in the nation at large. I, for one, was glad to be part of a community in which the obligation to cast a ballot was a joyful and unifying one.

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