In this post I am proposing some principles on which I believe the rules for internal elections in membership organisations should be based. For the background to this post see here.
- Campaigning is good: Campaigning for votes in internal elections is necessary, healthy, and should be encouraged. Democracy is about more than just voting. Elections should do more than decide who should fill posts or sit on a committee. Ideally they should also be about testing and challenging the candidates, debating issues, resolving disputes, answering questions of policy and strategy, and providing a steer for the future of the organisation. These things can be achieved as the result of a healthy and well organised election campaign. So any election rules should facilitate such campaigning and not prevent it.
- Be permissive: The rules you do have should start from the premise that everything is allowed – except those things that you decide should be specifically ruled out.
- Expect good behaviour: I’m not arguing for a free for all however. Campaigning should take place within certain bounds of appropriateness and decency. A lot of this is common sense or is covered by the law, such as the law of libel, anyway. However, you do need to have a rule that clearly states that certain standards of personal conduct are expected of candidates.
- Prevent personal criticism: The criticism of others – the questioning of decisions, judgment and competence – can often be justified as part of the debate surrounding an election. It is difficult to argue for a change in the direction of an organisation without some kind of critique of the direction that its current leadership is taking it in. However, you can get into dangerous waters if that criticism is directed at individuals. So I believe that the rules should prevent direct personal criticism of named individuals. So to say “the current leadership are taking us in the wrong direction” is fair comment – to say “Jane Bloggs is an incompetent fool” is not.
- Provide a good platform: If you are encouraging campaigning and seeking to get the best out of it then it helps if you provide a number of good quality mechanisms that create a forum in which that campaigning can take place. By this I mean the production of members mailings, arranging husting meetings, creating special sections on your website and so on. The platforms you choose to provide will obviously depend on the size, culture and finances of your organisation.While candidates should not be restricted from going outside the officially sanctioned channels, if those channels are of good enough quality, in reality most people will stick with them. Usually they will be the easiest and most effective methods of campaigning available. Shaping the debate in a positive direction is much more likely to be achieved by encouraging it to take place through well designed communication channels than by imposing restrictions that candidates will seek to work around.
- Control access to membership lists: A critical tool for any candidate participating in an internal election will be having access to a list of contact details of members who have a vote. Organisations will need to think about how they want to handle this. This can range from giving candidates a full list and freedom to use it how they wish, through providing limited access for specific purposes, to providing no access at all and leaving candidates to create their own contact lists. The choice of approach will depend on the nature and culture of the organisation. But the key advice I would give is that the approach should be a clear and consistent one for all candidates. Rules should ensure a level playing field with no candidates having privileged access to this resource.
- Embrace online: The internet and social media have had far reaching consequences for how campaigning can take place. This should be seen as a welcome opportunity for increased engagement and participation – not as something to be feared. It is important to understand that online media has mostly had a leveling down effect. Tools like the web, Facebook and Twitter are available for use by candidates who may lack access to other more traditional resources. These tools are also changing and evolving all the time. It is foolish to create rules that place restrictions on particular communication technologies – as these will soon become out of date.
- Restrict money – not speech: Restrictions on what candidates can do to communicate with voting members are usually counterproductive and often ineffective. Where you should concentrate in order to ensure fairness in an election is on how much a candidate can spend. Spending limits should be set (and these can be set at zero if necessary) and expenses declared. The best way to ensure a level playing field between candidates is to have measures to prevent the wealthy from ‘buying’ the election.
- Have few rules – but enforce the ones you do have: I am arguing for a permissive environment in which election campaigns should take place – but not a lawless one. The rules you do have should be clearly understood by those involved and the consequences for breaking them should be real. If someone breaks the rules they should be disqualified, otherwise there is no point in having them in the first place. So it is important that the process for enforcing the rules is established and is workable. Critical to this is having a competent and independent returning officer with clearly established powers and an appropriate appeals process to handle disputes.
- Fair votes: Finally, though it shouldn’t really be needed to be said, always use the single transferable vote system. Also, if you can, employ Electoral Reform Services to count the votes.
I hope that is food for thought. Please feel free to add suggestions for other principles in the comments below.