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What’s new in the 11th edition — Part 3: Definition of “majority vote”

Shmuel Gerber

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It's been a while since Part 1 & Part 2 in this series, but here is Part 3:

Item #20 on the summary list of notable changes in RONR is that “the Eleventh Edition … Modifies the text’s coverage of the relation of the quorum requirement to the description of majority, two-thirds, and majority-of-the-entire-membership votes” (pp. 4–5, 400–401).

Did the authorship team really change the definition of “majority vote”? Yes, but only for technical reasons. In a practical sense, the traditional rule still applies. Here’s what happened.

In accordance with statements made in all previous editions of RONR (and ROR, Robert’s Rules of Order Revised), the adoption of a proposition by majority vote was described in the Tenth Edition as “direct approval … registered by more than half of the members present and voting on the particular matter, in a regular or properly called meeting at which the necessary minimum number of members, known as a quorum, is present” (10th ed., p. 4, ll. 7–13; see also 10th ed. p. 387, ll. 8–13). Similar wording is used with reference to a two-thirds vote (10th ed., p. 388, ll. 3–6).

Direct reference to the presence of a quorum within the definition of a voting requirement creates a technical problem, however: the fact is that votes may properly be taken on certain procedural matters even in the absence of a quorum. For example, a motion to Recess “requires a majority vote,” (11th ed., p. 231, l. 33), but it can be adopted even in the absence of a quorum (p. 347, ll. 30–32). Furthermore, the Eleventh Edition describes other actions that can be taken in the absence of a quorum, in addition to those set forth in previous editions (see Item #15 on the summary list of notable changes). The authors believed it appropriate, therefore, to eliminate from the definitions of majority vote and two-thirds vote in the Eleventh Edition any direct reference to the presence of a quorum (see p. 4, ll. 5–9; p. 400, ll. 8–12; p. 401, ll. 8–11), so that these definitions will also be technically applicable in cases where action may properly be taken even in the absence of a quorum.

To help ensure that no change in the substance of any of an assembly’s voting requirements would be inferred from the technical changes to these definitions in RONR as the parliamentary authority, we also inserted the following general proviso in §1: “Whenever the rules of an assembly require a majority vote, a two-thirds vote, or any other basis for decision, it must be understood that, unless otherwise specified in the rules (as in the case of certain procedural actions), such a vote is effective only if taken when the necessary minimum number of members, known as a quorum, is present” (p. 5, ll. 3–9), thus incorporating by reference into any voting requirements the general rule that a quorum must be present whenever business is transacted. A similar insertion has been made in §44 (p. 401, ll. 1–4).

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Although it is certainly true that the 11th Edition made no change in substance to the definitions of “majority vote” and “two-thirds vote” when it removed from them any reference to a quorum, it may be of some interest to note that, at one time, these definitions seemed inextricably intertwined with questions concerning the presence or absence of a quorum This was so because, prior to Speaker Reed’s famous “present quorum” ruling on January 29, 1890, the presence of a quorum in the U.S. House of Representatives was determined by reference to the number of members responding during a roll-call vote, and not by reference to the number of members actually present at the time. I believe that it is for this reason that it wasn’t until the 1915 Edition that General Robert inserted, as the second sentence of his section on Quorum (Sec. 64 in the 1915 edition; Sec. 43 in all previous editions) the following: “The quorum refers to the number present, not to the number voting.”

This pre-1890 concept of having the presence of a quorum determined by the number of members voting (rather than the number of members actually present) seems to have led our courts to so often speak in terms of “a majority of the quorum” as being the vote required for the adoption of any proposal requiring a majority vote for its adoption. It is ironic indeed to find the Supreme Court of the United States, while in the process of affirming the constitutionality of the House’s rule codifying Speaker Reed's ruling (U. S. v. Ballin, 144 U.S. 1, 1892), saying that "...the general rule of all parliamentary bodies is that, when a quorum is present, the act of a majority of the quorum is the act of the body."

Fortunately for us, parliamentary law is not made by our courts. :)

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