A conversation about Baha'i elections

Background: This was originally posted as a series of comments on this post at the Baha'i Rants blog, run by someone who uses the nom de plume of Baquia. I'm posting it here as a reference and a backup.

To be fair, political elections have similarly low rates of participation, so perhaps the low rate of participation in Baha'i elections is unsurprising.

However, probably a larger problem is the patently inflated Baha'i membership rolls. It is axiomatic that in almost all Baha'i communities, there are people on the rolls who are never seen or heard from. It's true that there are some who cannot make it to events, or whose partners are non-Baha'is hostile to the faith. But I suspect that the Baha'i fixation on administration and record-keeping means that many of them are simply people who left without bothering to officially resign. That should not come as a surprise. After all, having decided to move on, they can hardly be blamed for not regarding NSA records as important, or for declining to let their own religious identity be defined by someone else's paperwork.

Baquia's reply:

Larry, the last US election had a 63% turnout - that's between 2-3.5 times what I'm seeing for unit conventions. But do we really want to compare Baha'i elections to partisan elections?

Your point about the inflated membership rolls is a valid one. That is to say, it may not be just that people are not participating but that the total community population is artificially high so it seems that people are nto participating as much.

I think it is a combination of this and apathy. But don't you think an 18% turnout is too low? I mean, at what point does the LSA or NSA or UHJ say, wait a minute! something is really wrong here… let's do something about this.

I'm sincerely asking that. How low is too low? would you be ok if 5% turned out? would that be consiedered a Baha'i election?

Baquia, I think there are bigger issues here than just participation in Unit Conventions.

(Disclaimer: I'm an ex-Baha'i, not a currently enrolled one, so I'm approaching this from the perspective of an outsider who was once an insider.)

First, you have to take into account that it's an all-day affair, not just a quick vote. There's all the usual administrivia to deal with: registration, election of a chairman, election of a secretary, the presentation of reports, etc. There's tons of consultation. There's lunch, and then at some point in the afternoon you finally get to vote. It's a huge time commitment, all to elect a single delegate to the national convention, where he or she will be one of hundreds. It’s a tremendously indirect way of voting, and a great way to dilute the votes of individuals.

And who will that delegate be? Baha'i elections being what they are, that delegate is likely to be someone very well-connected, well-known in the community, someone who isn't going to rock the boat much. It goes to the nature of Baha'i elections: it sounds so wonderfully progressive to have elections without nominations or campaigning, but the reality is that when everyone writes down names on a list, it's not hard for a small group of like-minded people to determine the outcome. Would 5% turnout be valid? Sure, why not. It would probably be the same 5% that elects the delegate anyway. I've been a teller at conventions; I've seen it happen. This is not to say that it's some big conspiracy, just a matter of doing the math.

This is where the real problem lies, and you can’t change it. As with so many other things in the supposedly modern Baha'i Faith, this method of elections appears to be enshrined in the canon, given the force of law by the writings of a man who has been dead fifty years, left no successor and whose interpretations therefore cannot be altered1 until the theoretical coming of another Manifestation of God in a thousand years’ time.

So, if you have an 18% turnout, what you’re seeing is the dedicated core of the community, electing one of their own. If you’re a Baha'i who is uncomfortably individualistic, resists groupthink, or who feels marginalized for any reason, and you’ve been around long enough to see how things work in the community, you’re not going to bother. And I really don’t think there’s anything that can be done to change that.

Baquia's reply:

Larry, thanks for your thoughts. To be clear, while the convention may be a drawn out affair, voting for a delegate to go to the convention is effortless. You don't even have to show up in person, you can just mail your vote in or hand it off to a friend. So I don't see what you mean there.

Regarding the election process being enshrined in 'canon' - that is not so completely accurate. A few principles such as no campaigning and secret ballot are enshrined but the rest is rather fluid and has actually changed over time throughout history. We may not be aware of it but a look back at how other communities used to do it 50-70 years ago or in different parts of the world will show that to be true. So there is flexibility built in if we want to, for example, introduce term limits.

Out of curiosity, why did you leave the Faith? I get the feeling there's a story there.- if you care to share.

Yes, it’s true that absentee balloting is available, but it’s my unprovable hunch that apart from the elderly, infirm, and those who work or travel on business, anyone who takes it seriously enough to vote is going to make the effort to be there. That’s why I brought it up. It is, however, just speculation, and is perhaps therefore irrelevant.

Why did I leave the Faith? I haven’t written or spoken publicly about my reasons in any great detail, in order to spare certain people I left behind unnecessary pain, but as my resignation recedes into the past that concern has lessened.

The short version is this: I had been going through a slow process of spiritual disillusionment for some time. I might have worked this through and remained, had it not been for the relentless pushing of Ruhi, the Kalimat Press boycott and the disturbing events of the 2007 National Convention. When it became clear that I was the only one in my community with qualms about any of this, it led me to resign from my LSA, remove myself from community life and enter a painful period of contemplation, at the end of which I decided I could no longer make myself believe any of it, and sent in my resignation. Since leaving, I have spent considerable time coming to terms with all of it, and I’ve come to some conclusions about the causes of it all, but that was after the fact.

I don’t want to hijack this thread further, but I’ll be happy to expand upon my departure privately via email if you’re interested.

Baquia's reply:

Thanks Larry. Did anyone from the NSA contact you re your resignation or did they just accept it without any sort of 'exit interview'? I mean, if you didn't explain why you were resigning, did they ask? or offer to sit down with you and talk? I'm curious what approach they take to the process once they receive a resignation letter.

Baquia, I'm replying to my own reply since there doesn't seem to be the option to reply to yours.

Nobody contacted me about my resignation, either to challenge it or to let me know that my letter had even been received. To be fair, I made it very clear in my letter of resignation that I had moved on and where I had moved on to (I was baptized and chrismated into the Orthodox Church). Perhaps if that hadn't been the case, they might have contacted me, but there's no way of knowing. I had heard stories of people who had to explicitly reject Baha'u'llah in their resignation letters in order to get taken off the rolls, so I tried to preempt that.

As it was, the only way I knew they had received my resignation was that my login for the website eventually stopped working. I did receive a very nice letter back from my LSA, to whom I had sent a similar letter.

  1. This refers to Shoghi Effendi, the great-grandson of Baha'u'llah and the first and only appointed Guardian of the Baha'i Faith.