18 September 2011

The Problem of Incumbency

With six months left until Ridvan, it’s time to start thinking about the election of the Local Spiritual Assembly!

I’ve been thinking a lot about an issue with Baha’i elections. What is the role of incumbency? Generally speaking, Assemblies don't have natural turnover. Once someone is elected, it is extremely rare that they are removed in the normal voting process, instead they leave due to personal reasons, retirement, or moving to another community. If this is a problem, it should be given serious thought by Baha'is.

I feel the Writings are clear that it is a problem. It can cause stagnation. Shoghi Effendi quite explicitly says that having new members elected "would be nice" and provides "new blood" that "always adds to the energy of the group." In another place he says that he was “happy to see changes” in membership of an NSA, because, "change itself is good and brings a fresh outlook into the discussions of any assembly." Shoghi Effendi was “pleased to see that these changes involved more younger people being on the N.S.A.” Having the election annually, he says, allows "the quality of membership in Baha'i assemblies" to be "continually raised and improved."

Part of the problem of stagnation is simple: most Baha'i communities are very small. Shoghi Effendi also says that the desire for turnover should be subordinate to the more important principle that, "the members are considered to be well qualified for that post." So if there were only 15 active members, it would not always be possible to have new members elected without compromising the quality of membership. The Baha’i system of governance is scalable, and as the community grows, the pool of those exemplifying the qualities for membership will also increase in a community.

However, when the community grows, another problem grows with it. It becomes nearly impossible to become closely acquainted with the character of so many people, so incumbency happens for a different reason: people elect sitting members of the Assembly without knowing much about them. In communities with hundreds of believers, often broken up into smaller units for Feasts, it would be truly rare for Baha’is to know all the Assembly members personally. This is the problem I wish to address, because without understanding this, communities will stagnate as they grow.

I believe this is the case in my city. I have lived in the city for about 7 years, and in that time I have never seen an Assembly member removed from membership by an election. As I hear, it has always been that way, and I can see the need for change. The community is also a bit stagnant, with little to no growth over many years, either in teaching or fund contributions. Whether this is caused by the stagnation on the Assembly or the other way around is a philosophical question for another time. But certainly, the community and institution affect each other, and resolving the problems in one can raise up the other.

So how can this problem be resolved? Quite simple. There are two general rules that I thought of.
1. When considering a ballot, pay no attention to current membership status.
2. Only vote for those individuals with whom you have personal experience and can gauge their character.

By personal experience, I mean some one-on-one time, not public speaking or reading their Facebook posts. Otherwise it would be too easy to maintain a public image that is not reflective of one’s private life. These practices are consonant with all the guidance provided in the guidelines for elections, and focusing on them has some obvious benefits.

In communities that are broken up into smaller Feast areas, each Feast area would naturally vote mostly for people in that area. The result would encourage the makeup of the Assembly to be geographically and perhaps culturally diverse. Votes are not limited, but in a large decentralized community this would be the natural result, and it provides a benefit overall. This trend of a neighborhood increasingly voting within its own ranks is consonant with guidance from the Universal House of Justice about the long-term growth of communities. As the number of neighborhoods grows beyond nine, the Assembly membership cannot be drawn from each area. The House of Justice anticipated this growth and announced in 2005 that it will monitor development closely and “authorize a two-stage electoral process on a case-by-case basis,” meaning that each neighborhood will elect a delegate, and all the delegates of a city will be the electors of the Local Spiritual Assembly.

When casting votes for delegates or Assemblies, the previous year’s status should be largely ignored. Otherwise a significant bias would be given to sitting members, and change would verge on impossible. Obviously a wholesale replacement of all the members would cause some undesirable chaos, but that is not a problem currently experienced anywhere. Shoghi Effendi asks Baha’is to consider the qualities of “unquestioned loyalty, of selfless devotion, of a well-trained mind, of recognized ability and mature experience,” and that they be “faithful, sincere, experienced, capable and competent”. Past participation on an Assembly is never mentioned as a virtue when considering names. In theory, those in the community who best combine these qualities will not change dramatically from year to year, so if the qualities are the basis for voting, the Assembly would not change greatly in membership from year to year. But if current membership status is somehow added to this list in people’s minds, then the quality of membership will suffer.

Far from avoiding the subject of elections all together, Shoghi Effendi advises Baha’is to “get thoroughly acquainted with one another… and discuss among themselves the requirements and qualifications for such a membership without reference… to particular individuals." They should "stress the necessity of getting fully acquainted with the qualifications of membership… and of learning more about one another through direct, personal experience…” These guidelines are clear. Baha’is should discuss the qualities of membership, the election process, and be thinking of who to vote for throughout the year, not just when walking into the election. Most of all, he asks Baha’is to stress the necessity of learning about one another through direct, personal experience. That’s what I’m stressing. I have observed that this simple advise is difficult to put into practice. Baha’is should not vote for anyone who they are not thoroughly acquainted with personally. This can easily be achieved by attendance at Feast: through participating in consultation, and during the social portion. In another place Shoghi Effendi even says that one of the reasons for participating in community life is just to be able to vote intelligently in the election. It’s that important.

Just to be clear, I think this is a problem that will be resolved and improved with time, experience, and education. It is not an inherent flaw in the system, since nobody would advocate a regression to the obscene spectacle that is partisan politics, with its nominations and soul-grinding campaigns. What I’m trying to address is an area of improvement, where returning to the guidance will resolve a persistent problem that is seen in Baha’i communities all over North America.

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