4 Things Most People Get Wrong about AbstentionsRaise your hand if you’ve ever heard or said these words:

  • “All those in favor, say ‘aye.’”
  • “All those opposed, say ‘no.’”
  • “Any abstentions?”

And just keep your hand up there if that last question makes you think, “What in the world is an abstention? And why in the world is the chair asking for them?” Let me try to explain.

First, in parliamentary procedure land, an “abstention” is simply a voter’s decision not to vote. It’s when a motion comes up for a vote, and (1) you don’t want anyone to know what you think about that issue, (2) you disagree with the guy next to you but don’t want him to know, (3) you aren’t sure what you think, (4) you lost track of business a while back and don’t know what the vote is about, or (5) you totally miss that a vote is happening because you’re thinking about golf. So you just don’t vote.

Now hopefully at this point you’re asking, “If an abstention is a decision not to vote, why ask the people who aren’t voting to announce that fact to everyone?” Good question. Asking vote-abstainers to identify themselves is just one of several points of confusion people have about how abstentions work.

1. Always Ask for Abstentions

No. As I’ve talked about before, per Robert’s Rules, abstentions should not be called for, counted, or recorded. Why? Because no member can be required to vote, so when you ask people to tell whether they voted, you’re asking them to make a record of their decision to not go on record.

2. Never Ask for Abstentions

No. Point one aside, there are two circumstances when you should ask people who are abstaining to identify themselves. (1) You’re part of a public body (elected/appointed officials) and have a responsibility to make a record of your participation on votes for the benefit of constituents. Or (2), you’re counting the vote, and those voting are fewer than the number required for a quorum. You wouldn’t want members to question whether a quorum was present for that vote, and so recording the number of abstentions clarifies that you had a quorum. Totally fair.

3. Abstentions Should Be Counted as Votes “Cast”

Wrong. The issue here is whether to count abstentions as votes cast when you’re trying to determine whether you have a majority. In other words, if you’re on a board of 12, all of whom are present, and 10 people vote and two abstain, do you need six yes votes to win or seven? You need six according to the default definition of majority, which is “those present and voting.” So yet another reason not to ask for abstentions. They generally have no effect on the vote anyway. But once in a while they do. See my next point.

4. Abstentions Never Affect the Vote Result

Wrong again. Abstentions affect the vote result if your governing documents define majority differently – as the number of individuals present or the number of total members. Under either of these definitions, using the example above, you would need seven votes to win. In this case, even though an abstention is still not counted as a vote cast, it effectively acts as a “no” vote because the basis for a majority is a fixed number.

All those who now know a little more about abstentions, say “aye.”

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Photo of Sarah E. Merkle Sarah E. Merkle

Sarah E. Merkle is a professional and a driven achiever, but a helpful one. Her legal work dovetails neatly with her unique avocation—sharing parliamentary procedure with those who need help navigating the sometimes crazy world of organizational governance and meetings. She’s one of only five lawyers in the world to have earned the two highest parliamentarian certifications. For nearly 15 years she has used her expertise to help local, regional, and national clients make decisions that honor the law but efficiently move business forward without disruption. It’s more than taking minutes or understanding the latest edition of Robert’s Rules of Order—Sarah demonstrates that parliamentary procedure can be a helpful tool, and as a former educator, she knows how to make the tricky parts understandable.