One might think that two words on the subject of voting – yea or nay – would be enough, yet Robert’s Rules of Order, Revised devotes more than 6,000 words to the subject. Indeed, Article VIII of Roberts is all about voting, with 4,000 words dedicated to the main theme, another 300 or so words focused on “Votes that are Null and Void even if Unanimous,” and another 900 or so words looking at “Motions requiring more than a Majority Vote.”
These discussions don’t even touch on “Putting the Question and Announcing the Vote,” or “Division of Assembly” (which involved demanding a recount of a vote if voting members are concerned that the outcome of a vote is uncertain), which together add another 1,100 words to the conversation.
That seems like a lot of words to cover something as simple as yea and nay, but Robert’s is nothing if not thorough. Indeed, Robert’s dive into the topic of voting begins even before the voting begins: It provides guidelines – even the words – that a chairperson of an assembly should use when putting a matter to an assembly for a vote. The concreteness of the instructions will remind parents of a tone required when speaking to very young children: “After the question [the matter to be voted on] is stated by the chair, he should inquire, ‘Are you ready for the question?’ After a moment’s pause, if no one rises, he should put the question to vote.”
Yet there’s a clear purpose to this concreteness. Robert’s expressly states that “rules are designed for the protection of the minority” and nowhere is this idea more important than when it comes to voting on a matter. Not only are the questions, expressly read out before the vote, the assemblage is to be prompted before the question is put to a vote. If the matter is debatable, there are procedures for debate before the vote is taken. If the question is put to a voice vote and there is any question as to whether the yeas or the nays prevail, the chair of the committee can conduct the vote again by asking members voting yea to stand or to raise a hand so that they may be counted; then the chair will direct those standing to sit down and ask those members who voted nay to stand (or raise a hand) and be counted.
When the voting is finally over, Robert’s rules that the chair should announce not only the result of the vote (“the ayes have it”) but also the effect of the vote (“the resolution to do X is adopted”) before going on to the next matter of business. The rationale for this procedure – and certainly the wording of that rationale – may strike one as quaint:
One of the most prolific causes of confusion in deliberative assemblies is the neglect of the chair to keep the assembly well informed as to what is the pending business. The habit of announcing the vote by simply saying that the “motion is carried” and then sitting down, cannot be too strongly condemned. Many members may not know what is the effect of the vote, and it is the chair’s duty to inform the assembly what is the result of the motion’s being carried or lost, and what business comes next before the assembly.
But the quaintness of the wording reminds us of the passion with which Brigadier General Henry M. Robert approached the topic of voting and proper parliamentary procedure. Voting is important, and getting it right is just as important. Writing 6,000 words to ensure that future assemblies would get right the two key words – yea and nay – seems not such a bad investment in that light.