Parliamentary Procedure Basics

A Quick Guide to Voting Terms (Plus PDF Download)Attend a meeting or read an organization’s rules, and you’re likely to encounter a variety of voting terms. Parliamentary procedure (e.g., the rules of Robert’s Rules and other parliamentary procedure guidebooks) helps us out with the voting process.

Though some concepts may seem familiar, even well-known terms like “majority” have nuanced meaning. Here’s a quick guide (and some bonus tips) to common voting terms whose definitions and usage may not always be readily apparent:


to not vote at all

Bonus Tip: Except in public bodies, a presiding officer should not ask members to identify whether they are abstaining from a vote.

ballot vote a written, secret vote on a slip of paper; allowed only when required by the bylaws or ordered by a majority vote
counted vote a method of vote verification whereby each vote is individually tallied; occurs on the chair’s initiative alone or via passage of a motion by majority vote; one member cannot demand it
division of assembly a method of vote verification demanded by one member, whereby an inconclusive voice vote or show of hands vote is retaken as a rising vote; the demand is made by calling out, “Division!”; not a method by which one member can demand a counted vote
general/unanimous consent

a vote taken informally on noncontroversial matters

Bonus Tip: To take a vote using this method, say, “If there is no objection, we will . . . .” If any member objects, simply put the motion to a more formal vote by saying, “All those in favor of . . . say, ‘aye.’ All those opposed, say, ‘no.’”


more than half of the members in good standing that are both present and voting

Bonus Tip: This is the default definition of “majority” if used without qualification in an organization’s governing documents.

majority of a quorum more than half of the number of members needed for a quorum
majority of the entire membership more than half of all the members in good standing, regardless of whether they are present
majority of the members present more than half of the members in good standing that are present at a meeting
plurality the largest number of votes among three or more candidates or proposals; not necessarily a majority
proxy a “power of attorney” given by one member to another member to vote in his place

every member present casts the same vote on a motion

Bonus Tip: This is the weakest type of vote because it allows one disagreeable member to control the entire group. Use judiciously.

vote by acclamation

a declaration by the chair that a member nominated for an office is elected; no vote is taken

Bonus Tip: Used only when only one person is nominated for an office and the bylaws do not require a ballot vote.


Who Needs Parliamentary Procedure Anyway? Part 2My last post provided the simple answer to why organizations still use (the seemingly outdated, archaic-sounding) parliamentary procedure: They use it because they are following state law, or because their bylaws say that they will adhere to a certain parliamentary authority (rulebook) and they have to follow their bylaws.

I completely agree with the general public that the simple answer — “do-it-cuz-you’re-told” — is a bit unsatisfying. This week, I’ll tackle your real question: Does parliamentary procedure actually have any practicality or relevance?

I’ll give you the answer up front. Parliamentary procedure is still practical and relevant because most groups need some sort of structure to run efficiently, and parliamentary procedure is based on common group decision-making principles.

Most Groups Need Structure to Be Efficient and Sustainable

Forming a group of any kind requires some rules. Sometimes there’s only a few rules, and sometimes the rules are flexible. But c’mon…even a book club has rules, right?

In general, the larger the group and the more official it is (think incorporation), the more rules you need. Organizing and leading a meeting of 10 people is much different than doing the same for 5,000, or even 100. Parliamentary procedure provides a “ready-made” set of rules for groups to follow. Sure, some of the rules in Robert’s Rules or other parliamentary authorities are less applicable to groups of a certain type or size, but they can be tweaked to meet specific needs.

So yes, parliamentary procedure is still practical. And yes, relevant. Because in the general sense that “guidelines help,” parliamentary procedure helps. It helps meetings happen – smoothly.

Parliamentary Procedure Is Based on Fundamental Principles of Group Decision-Making

So, point #2 here addresses the “it’s random and outdated” argument head on.

Often underlying this argument is a particular scenario: You have a surface encounter with Robert’s Rules (like at a convention or homeowners association meeting where people are using it and you’re utterly lost). And you quickly decide that because you’ve never heard these terms or seen this process, this must be some archaic set of rules.

Yep . . . lack of knowledge. Nothing could be more untrue. Parliamentary procedure is based on really simple guidelines for group decision-making that we all know.

For example, in general, a group – even a group of friends deciding where to go to lunch – takes the course of action that a majority of people thinks is best. Parliamentary procedure just makes that general practice an official one and provides some guidelines (like how and when to take a vote) for figuring out the majority view – especially in situations when the decision is (“a little”) more important than choosing a lunch place.

Here’s another example: We can all agree that group discussions happen best when one person talks at a time, right? And when everyone who wants to participate gets to attend and gets to offer their opinion, correct? Parliamentary procedure just provides rules to make sure these things actually happen. Like a two-thirds vote to end discussion on a topic. (That higher-threshold vote of two-thirds is required because the group is cutting off a basic right of each member – the right to discuss and offer an opinion.) Or like quorum and notice requirements for special meetings.  One reason that these rules exist in the world of parliamentary procedure is to protect every member’s right to be there and participate in the group’s decisions.

My point is simply that parliamentary procedure isn’t an academic, purposefully-complicated framework for running a meeting. Sure, there are certain rules that definitely merit that description.  But, on the whole, parliamentary procedure is merely a “fleshing-out” of general rules and wisdom that we all already know and agree on.

Do you want a well-run group – where everyone’s voice is heard and order is maintained? Then parliamentary procedure should be your new best friend.

Who Needs Parliamentary Procedure Anyway? Part 1I know the blank stares and incredulous looks very well. “Parliamentary what?” “Oh, Robert’s Rules . . . . right. I think I’ve heard of that. Does anyone actually use that stuff anymore?”

Well, actually . . . yes. Yes, they do. And here’s why.

State Laws Include Parliamentary Procedure

Many states have adopted – either in full or in part – the Model Nonprofit Corporation Act or the Revised Model Nonprofit Corporation Act. These acts govern the operation of nonprofit corporations in any state that adopts them. While the acts include many provisions that are unrelated to parliamentary procedure, they also include sections that address notice, quorum, mail ballots, proxies, elections, and special meetings – to name just a few. And even states that have not adopted the model acts have adopted laws that address these topics.

Understanding parliamentary procedure is important in order to accurately evaluate, apply, and potentially adjust the basics in a state’s nonprofit statutes for the specific needs of an organization. Can your state’s nonprofit laws be adjusted to meet the needs of your group? And how does that work? Well, that requires an understanding of how the law works together with an organization’s parliamentary authority. Suffice it to say, though, that at least for nonprofit corporations, parliamentary procedure is still “alive and well.” State laws expect that groups use it.

Many Organizations Name a Parliamentary Authority in Their Bylaws

Aside from parliamentary procedure in state laws, parliamentary procedure is still relevant because many organizations name a parliamentary authority in their bylaws. As a reminder, a parliamentary authority is a set of published rules about parliamentary procedure that an organization adopts and follows.

You probably already know the big one. Robert’s Rules of Order is the parliamentary authority that most people have heard of. But check your bylaws: If a group has adopted a parliamentary authority, the group’s bylaws will usually say so, often in a section titled “Parliamentary Authority.”

For example, the bylaws might say, “The rules contained in the current edition of Robert’s Rules of Order, Newly Revised shall govern ABC Association in all cases to which they are applicable and in which they are not inconsistent with these bylaws and any special rules of order ABC Association may adopt.” See Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised (11th ed.), p. 580, ll. 9­–14.

So, to sum it up, parliamentary procedure is still used because state laws use it, and most groups still have bylaws that say they will follow a certain parliamentary authority. And quite simply, if the law or your bylaws require adherence to parliamentary procedure, you have to do it.

That’s the simple answer anyway: Use parliamentary procedure because you have to.

Ok, but that probably doesn’t answer your question. What you really want to know is if parliamentary procedure is actually necessary. Because it seems archaic, and it’s hard to learn. What you really want to know is whether parliamentary procedure is actually practical.

Cliffhanger! I’ll answer that question in detail in my next post, but I’ll tell you the short answer now: Yes, parliamentary procedure is most definitely still practical. And here’s a sneak preview of Part 2: Good group work takes finesse (i.e., some rules and strategy).