Here’s a common parliamentary procedure question: “Can the chair vote?” Robert’s Rules gives us some preliminary help on chair participation with a vague “yes, but only sometimes.” I’d like to take this a step further by addressing some specific circumstances and “what ifs.”
But, before I tell you about the chair’s voting powers, you should know that an underlying principle here is impartiality.
The chair has the same right to vote as everyone else, but Robert’s Rules likes the chair to convey neutrality to the members so that no member feels slighted or has any reason to question whether fundamental member rights are being honored. Because not voting is one way to give the chair an “air of impartiality,” parliamentary procedure allows the chair to vote only in special circumstances. Read on.
The chair can always vote in a small board or committee.
Small boards and committees (i.e., under 12 people) get to relax Robert’s Rules a bit. If you’re in one of these types of groups, the chair can always vote.
The chair can always vote if the vote is a secret.
If you’re using a secret ballot (anonymous voting), the impartiality issue is gone, and the chair can vote.
The chair can always vote if that individual vote would affect the result.
Here’s the rule: If the chair’s vote would make a difference on whether a motion passes or fails, the chair can vote. But the chair doesn’t have to vote in this instance.
And here’s the same principle again: When one vote makes a difference, Robert’s Rules cares a little less about the “air of impartiality.”
Here are three examples of legal chair participation in a close vote and the resulting impact:
A motion is on the floor to renovate the kitchen at the organizational headquarters. The motion needs a majority of those present and voting to pass.
Example 1: Without the chair’s vote, there are 50 votes in the affirmative and 50 votes in the negative. Unless the chair votes, the motion will not pass. (A tied vote on a motion means the motion fails.) The chair thinks, “Food is pretty important stuff. Anything to do with kitchens, I’m in.” So, he votes yes. The new totals are 51 votes in the affirmative and 50 in the negative. The vote passes.
Example 2: Without the chair’s vote, there are 51 votes in the affirmative and 50 votes in the negative. Unless the chair votes, the motion will definitely pass. The chair thinks, “You know, we could really use that money to restripe the parking lot. And I’m all about practicality. Food can wait.” So, he votes no. Now the total votes are 51 in the affirmative and 51 in the negative. Because a tied vote is not a passing vote, the motion fails.
Example 3: There are 51 votes in the affirmative and 50 votes in the negative. Unless the chair votes, the motion will definitely pass. The chair thinks, “People might judge me if I vote in the affirmative and hijack the kitchen renovation. I’ll just be quiet.” So, he abstains. That means the totals don’t change—there are still 51 votes in the affirmative and 50 votes in the negative. The motion is adopted.
So, if you’re the chair of your organization, use your voting power carefully. And in the back of your mind, do prioritize impartiality as an important aspect of wise leadership.