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Can Bahai Election Process Work For Political Election?

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PostPosted: Mon Oct 05, 2009 11:24 am    Post subject: Can Bahai Election Process Work For Political Election? Reply with quote

Can Bahai Election Process Work For Political Election?

A short video describing the election process of the Baha'i Faith

Bahá'í administration



Thoughts on the Baha'i Election Process

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Written by Neghan, Daily Baha'i Blog
Thursday, 06 December 2007

The basics
Baha’i elections are not like the divisive, party-driven, big money elections that go on in today’s representative democracies. Baha’i elections allow for no campaigning. There is no nomination. There are no political parties or political maneuvering. Baha’is simply vote, in a prayerful atmosphere, for the best people for the jobs. When we elect people to local, regional, national and international councils, these are volunteer positions. Elected representatives are not paid. They are not specifically responsible for the people that they represent, they serve all equally. They are asked only to make the most well-informed and fair decisions they can make that will be in line with their own personal conscious. This frees them from many biases, conflicts, and power struggles of current politics, and allows them to make the best decisions for everyone. Our Baha’i election process is one of the wonderful aspects of our Faith that we are very proud of and that we hold up as an example to the world.

Reaching its potential?
...some tangible suggestions on how we could improve things and help our Baha’i election system reach its full potential.
Of course, I believe we have a long way to go in understanding the value of our Baha’i election system. There are risks to the system we have that we will need to be aware of and work to mitigate. These risks include the incumbency bias and the tendency to vote for people on the basis of name recognition, among others. As always, the Daily Baha’i offers some tangible suggestions on how we could improve things and help our Baha’i election system reach its full potential. I hope you enjoy.
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PostPosted: Mon Oct 05, 2009 5:32 pm    Post subject: Democratic Elections without Campaigns? Reply with quote

Arash Abizadeh wrote:

“Democratic Elections without Campaigns? Normative Foundations of National Baha’i Elections.” World Order 37.1 (2005): 7-49.


Arash Abizadeh.

Copyright © 2006 by Arash Abizadeh. I am grateful to Betty J. Fisher, Pablo Gilabert, Nika Khanjani, Andrenea King, Stuart Soroka, an anonymous referee, and the members of the World Order Editorial Board for their valuable comments on an earlier draft.


Democratic Elections without Campaigns?

Normative Foundations of National Bahá’í Elections

We live not only in an age of democracy but in an age of democratic elections. Even today’s most authoritarian and repressive regimes feel compelled to treat their populations—and the world—to the spectacle of elections. We also live in an age in which the twentieth century’s deep disagreements between liberal democrats and communists about the very meaning of democratic elections seem to have been laid to rest. Today it is widely assumed that elections, to count as properly democratic, must be multiparty elections in which each party’s candidates compete freely for votes. Liberal democrats, it seems, have won the last word on what counts as a properly democratic election.

This is not to say, however, that equating democratic elections with multiparty competition is beyond criticism. Many critics bemoan the apparent shortcomings of multiparty democratic electoral politics. That such elections yield corrupt and morally bankrupt leaders; that they are meaningless without certain social or economic rights and conditions; that they fail to provide the electorate with any real political say or choice; that they are captured by powerful interest groups; or that modern electoral campaigns are too easily bought by money—these are all common worries. What is less common are viable alternatives to the competitive multiparty model of democratic elections. [page 8]

The Bahá’í community claims to practice such an alternative.[1] Because there are no clergy in the Bahá’í Faith, Bahá’í communities are governed by regularly elected representative institutions at local, regional (in some areas), national, and international levels.[2] For most students of democratic politics, the most surprising feature of Bahá’í elections is that they are conducted without nominations, competitive campaigns, voting coalitions, or parties. Indeed, Bahá’í elections are governed by formal institutional rules and informal norms that specifically prohibit such familiar features of the political landscape. The question is why Bahá’í elections are governed by these rules and norms. The answer lies in the distinctive values that are the foundation for the rules and norms. This study seeks to explain the distinct ethical, spiritual, and pragmatic values according to which national Bahá’í electoral rules and norms are justified—to lay bare, in other words, the philosophical foundations of national Bahá’í elections.

My thesis is twofold. First, the three core values on which Bahá’í institutions are based are respect for the inherent dignity of each person, the unity and solidarity of persons collectively, and the inherent justice and fairness of the institutions. These three distinct values operate at individual, interpersonal, and institutional levels, but they are conceptually connected to one another. Second, the instrumental value of Bahá’í electoral institutions lies in how well they perform the following four functions: selecting the most desirable representatives; legitimating Bahá’í administrative institutions; fostering virtues among individual participants; and fostering unity and solidarity in the community as a whole. These may be called the selection, legitimation, education, and integration functions of elections.

A study of the philosophical basis of national Bahá’í elections will be of interest to at least two audiences: students of democratic elections and students of the Bahá’í community and Bahá’í thought. Of particular interest to students of democratic elections is the conception of human dignity on which Bahá’í elections are based. [page 9] This conception refers not only to the freedom and equality of the person—which is rather standard fare in liberal democratic political philosophy—but also the nobility of the person. Emphasis on the nobility of the person focuses the Bahá’í model of democratic elections on a spiritual dimension largely absent from prevailing models. This emphasis, in turn, explains many of the distinct rules and norms of Bahá’í elections and potentially offers students of democratic elections fresh insights for democratic political theory more generally. Students of the Bahá’í community and thought will be interested in the study because it offers a systematic analysis of the values on which Bahá’í elections are based. To say, as Bahá’ís often do, that Bahá’í elections are fundamentally spiritual in nature is not to say that they constitute a magical process that cannot—or should not—be analyzed rationally. It is, rather, to say that these elections embody a set of fundamental spiritual and ethical values that provide the core that is supposed to animate the Bahá’í model and be embodied in its rules and norms.[3] The values are also what lend Bahá’í elections their distinctive character.

The core values on which Bahá’í elections are based find their ultimate textual source in the writings of Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, and `Abdu’l-Bahá, Bahá’u’lláh’s successor and leader of the Bahá’í community after Bahá’u’lláh’s passing. Their writings provide the primary and most abstract expression of the core values animating Bahá’í elections. But what those values mean in the context of elections requires much interpretive work. The writings of Shoghi Effendi provide the most detailed interpretation and application of these values in the electoral [page 10] process. Shoghi Effendi served as the Guardian and leader of the Bahá’í world community (1921–57) during the period of Bahá’í history in which many national Bahá’í administrative institutions were developed, before the establishment and election in 1963 of the first Universal House of Justice, the international governing body of the Bahá’í community. Though Shoghi Effendi’s writings have no formal legislative authority, they do have authoritative status in the Bahá’í community as interpretations of the writings of Bahá’u’lláh and `Abdu’l-Bahá.[4] Thus a secondary feature of this study of the normative foundations of national Bahá’í elections is that it concretely illustrates the relationship, in Bahá’í thought, between the writings of Bahá’u’lláh and `Abdu’l-Bahá and those of Shoghi Effendi: Whereas the former tend to provide an abstract statement of core values, the latter interpret and apply these values to particular contexts.[5]

1. The Legal Basis of Bahá’í Institutions
The Bahá’í community is governed by four levels of elected institutions: Local Spiritual Assemblies, Regional Councils (in some countries), National Spiritual Assemblies (hereafter NSA), and the Universal House of Justice. All are elected annually, except the Universal House of Justice, which is elected every five years. [page 11]

The legal bases for the constitutional organization of the Bahá’í community are the writings of Bahá’u’lláh, the writings of `Abdu’l-Bahá, and the legislative enactments of the elected institutions of the Bahá’í community, the Universal House of Justice in particular.[6] While Bahá’u’lláh and `Abdu’l-Bahá together provided the legal basis for elected local, national, and international governing bodies,[7] most of the constitutional details of Bahá’í structures of governance were left open—particularly in the case of electoral processes—and have had to be worked out subsequently by the Bahá’í community itself. As Shoghi Effendi wrote to the NSA of the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada in 1927,

in view of the fact that definite and detailed regulations defining the manner and character of Bahá’í elections have neither been expressly revealed by Bahá’u’lláh nor laid down in the Will and Testament of `Abdu’l-Bahá, it devolves upon the members of the Universal House of Justice to formulate and apply such system of laws as would be in conformity with the essentials and requisites expressly provided by the Author and Interpreter of the conduct of Bahá’í administration.[8]

Hence, while the writings of Shoghi Effendi have tremendous normative purchase on Bahá’í practice, they carry no legislative authority. As a result, the legal status of any constitutional arrangement or institutional rule that he helped institute, and that was not specifically provided for by Bahá’u’lláh or `Abdu’l-Bahá, remained provisional and dependent on future legislative enactment by the elected institutions of the Bahá’í community.[9] [page 12]

Most of the institutional rules and informal norms that currently govern NSA elections were worked out during the 1920s and 1930s, before the establishment of the Universal House of Justice, under the leadership of Shoghi Effendi in conjunction with the NSA of the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada.[10] These rules for the election of each country’s NSA are now formalized in the By-Laws of each NSA within the context of the Constitution of the Universal House of Justice.[11]

2. The Institutional Rules and Informal Norms of National Bahá’í Elections
Annual elections of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Canada are typical of NSA elections worldwide.[12] They involve a two-step process. First, all adults (currently defined as twenty-one years and older[13]) who are members in good standing of the Canadian Bahá’í community elect 171 delegates to the annual National Convention convened to elect the members of the NSA (Canadian NSA By-Laws art. 13). Delegates are elected by plurality vote (Canadian NSA By-Laws art. 13, §10.)[14] in predominantly single-member electoral units drawn in proportion to the number of adult resident Bahá’ís who make up that unit’s set of voters.[15] The [page 13] set of persons eligible to be elected as a delegate comprises all the voters in the electoral unit.

Second, the members of the NSA are then elected by the plurality vote of the 171 delegates during the annual National Convention (Canadian NSA By-Laws art. 13, §10).[16] (According to plurality-rule voting, those who receive the greatest number of votes, no matter how small the number, are elected—that is, a majority is not required.) The number of seats on the NSA is nine; the number of votes each delegate may cast is equal to the number of seats (nine); and each delegate must split his or her vote between nine different candidates. The set of candidates includes all adult members in good standing of the Canadian Bahá’í community.[17] Those nine candidates who receive the greatest number of (unspoiled) votes are elected to the NSA. In the case of ties, additional votes are taken on the persons tied until nine persons have been elected (Canadian NSA By-Laws art. 13, §10).[18] However, the Universal House of Justice has also dictated that “where it is obvious that one of the persons involved [in a tie] represents a minority,” such as an ethnic or cultural minority [page 14], “that person should be accorded the priority without question. Where there is doubt further balloting” should be undertaken.[19]

Bahá’í elections are also characterized by an informal norm that no reference be made to personalities before election. This norm corresponds to the formal institutional rules that require voting to be done by secret ballot and that ban electioneering, party-formation, and nominations.[20] A second norm relevant for elections is the NSA’s year-round duty of institutional transparency. A third is each individual’s year-round duty to take part actively in the election process and in day-to-day community affairs (for further discussion of the second and third norms, see section 4.1 on pages 34–43).

The question is how the Bahá’í rules and norms are to be justified and evaluated. The answer depends on which values these rules and norms are meant to serve. Plato tells us in his Republic that there are some goods that we value because of their consequences or outcomes, while there are some goods that we value for their own sake, independent of their consequences. And, of course, some goods we value both for the sake of their consequences and for their own sake.[21] Consider the value of a car. A car is, obviously, a means or instrument for realizing some outcome or goal—getting from Montreal to Ottawa, for example. If a car is a good means or instrument for achieving some valuable outcome, the car is instrumentally valuable. But consider a person who values his car not only as a means of transport but also for inherent features of the car itself. The shiny red color of the car may serve no useful transportation purpose, but the car’s owner may value the shiny red car for its own sake, [page 15] not as an instrument, but as noninstrumentally valuable. Indeed, for the collector who simply keeps his cars locked up in a garage year-round without using them, the noninstrumental value may be the car’s only value.

Similarly, outcomes are not the only measure of electoral institutions’ value. Inherent features of the electoral process are also important for their own sake, independent of the kind of outcomes to which the process leads. Even if the best representatives could be elected by a totally unfair process that required lying and humiliating participants, there would be something inherently wrong with the process itself. Thus one way to justify and evaluate electoral rules and norms is according to features of the electoral process that are valuable for their own sake. But elections are also, of course, instruments for realizing certain outcomes—such as choosing qualified persons as one’s representatives. Hence the second way to justify and evaluate electoral rules and norms is according to the kind of outcomes to which they typically lead. Consider, for example, a rule that voting be carried out by open (rather than secret) ballot. If such a rule typically leads to criminals being elected (because they can effectively threaten or bribe everyone for votes), the open-ballot rule would be a poor instrument for securing good outcomes. Such a rule would fail to have instrumental value.

Therefore, the formal institutional rules and informal norms of Bahá’í elections can be justified and evaluated in two ways: according to their noninstrumental value and according to their instrumental value. The noninstrumental value of Bahá’í elections is determined by features of the electoral process that are valuable for their own sake. Their instrumental value is determined by the goodness or badness of the outcomes to which they typically lead.[22] [page 16]

3. The Noninstrumental Value of Bahá’í Electoral Rules and Norms
Bahá’í institutions are based on a conception of each person as free, equal, and noble, qualities that in combination we might call the inherent dignity of each human being.[23] `Abdu’l-Bahá relates the inherent freedom of each person directly to the dignity of each person’s conscience, which is “sacred” and the freedom of which commands respect.[24] The dignity of each human being, in turn, corresponds to the fundamental spiritual and moral equality of each person as a source of normative value.[25]

The emphasis on a conception of the person as fundamentally free and equal has become rather standard fare in liberal egalitarian political philosophy.[26] What is important and distinctive about the conception of the person on which Bahá’í institutions are based, however, is the third element of the human being’s inherent dignity: the nobility of each person.[27] Bahá’u’lláh describes this nobility in terms [page 17] of the inherent capacity of each person for spiritual perfection.[28] This conception of the person as fundamentally and inherently noble rejects the view of human beings as inherently sinful, but by tying human beings’ inherent nobility to their potentiality, Bahá’u’lláh advances a conception of nobility compatible with the possibility of failure to realize that potential (and, hence, of great wrongdoing). “Noble I made thee,” the Hidden Words declare, but immediately ask, “wherewith dost thou abase thyself?”[29] The same point is made when Bahá’u’lláh describes human beings’ noble station in terms of the “gems” that lie within them:

Man is the supreme Talisman. Lack of a proper education hath, however, deprived him of that which he doth inherently possess. . . . The Great Being saith: Regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value. Education can, alone, cause it to reveal its treasures, and enable mankind to benefit therefrom.[30]

Nobility, in other words, is a perfectionist value. It assumes a conception of the person as having certain ends the realization of which constitutes human perfection.[31] Even so, nobility is not simply valuable as a means for realizing such ends. The potentiality to which nobility refers is a spiritual status commanding respect as such, independent of whether the potential is (fully) realized.

One of the ends of nobility is the recognition, in both one’s attitudes and deeds, of the fundamental moral and spiritual unity of all human beings. This unity is the second core value that Bahá’í electoral institutions seek to express or embody. It is a value premised on relations of solidarity among persons—relations in which human beings are disposed to respect the inherent dignity of each person and to “give each others’ interests some noninstrumental weight in their practical reasoning.”[32] [page 18]

Because the inherent dignity comprising the freedom, equality, and nobility of the person is a spiritual or moral status, it commands the respect of others: In other words, it imposes moral responsibilities that specify how human beings ought to treat each other. Thus the inherent dignity of each person also goes hand in hand with the third fundamental value to which Bahá’í electoral institutions aspire: justice and fairness (or justice and equity).[33] If solidarity identifies a disposition of character on the part of individuals to recognize the inherent dignity of others, the third value of justice and fairness imposes the moral responsibility to do so. [page 19]

In sum: Bahá’í institutions are noninstrumentally valuable insofar as they (1) respect the inherent dignity (freedom, equality, and nobility) of each human being; (2) express or embody the unity and solidarity of human beings collectively; and (3) are just and fair. These three values operate at the most abstract level of normative justification. The question is how to interpret and apply them to the particular case of electoral institutions and norms.

The core value of freedom finds expression in at least three ways in Shoghi Effendi’s discussion of elections. The first is that the electoral process ought to be characterized by the widespread participation of the members of the community in the selection of their representatives.[34] This corresponds to the formal institutional rule giving [page 20] community members in good standing the right to vote for their representatives, whether directly or indirectly.[35]

The second expression of the core value of freedom is that the voting process ought to respect voters’ freedom to vote according to the dictates of their own conscience (just as the consultation process ought to respect the freedom to speak one’s conscience).[36] This value of respecting the freedom of the voter’s conscience is precisely how Shoghi Effendi justifies three formal institutional rules designed to eliminate any restriction on whom a voter may vote for: the rule that all adult community members in good standing are candidates for national office; the corresponding ban on nominations; and the corresponding rejection of term limits for elected representatives.[37]

The value of respecting the freedom of the voter’s conscience is also a consideration Shoghi Effendi cites in favor of plurality-rule over sequential majority-rule voting at National Convention. (“Sequential” refers to the fact that, in case the nine persons receiving the most votes have not each received votes at least equal to the majority of delegates, subsequent rounds or run-offs are held until nine persons have done so.) Until 1928 elections for the NSA of the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada were conducted by sequential majority- rather than plurality-rule voting. Loni Bramson-Lerche, a lecturer in religious studies, notes that this made for a rather cumbersome electoral process. Since only a portion of delegates attended National Convention during this period, and since often four or five rounds of balloting were required to secure a majority of delegates’ votes for each of nine persons, the NSA was obliged to telegraph absent delegates repeatedly for their votes until a new NSA was elected.[38] The NSA had repeatedly queried Shoghi Effendi about which procedure [page 21] to adopt, but, as Bramson-Lerche observes, “as always, Shoghi Effendi wished the National Assembly to work out a solution itself.”[39] Furthermore, during this early period, elections for the NSA of the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada were preceded by nominations. Each delegate could nominate as many persons as he or she wished, following which delegates would vote for nine persons from among the nominees. Absent delegates, however, could not make nominations, which some felt was unfair, since, in effect, the procedure meant that the slate of nominees was determined by only a portion of the delegates.[40] In a May 27, 1927, letter to the NSA of the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada, Shoghi Effendi, still refraining from deciding the matter for the NSA, responded to its requests for guidance by recommending the consideration of the following reasons in favor of provisionally adopting plurality-rule voting:

The general practice prevailing throughout the East is the one based upon the principle of plurality rather than absolute majority, whereby those candidates that have obtained the highest number of votes, irrespective of the fact whether they command an absolute majority of the votes cast or not, are automatically and definitely elected. It has been felt, with no little justification, that this method, admittedly disadvantageous in its disregard of the principle that requires that each [page 22] elected member must secure a majority of the votes cast, does away on the other hand with the more serious disadvantage of restricting the freedom of the elector who, unhampered and unconstrained by electoral necessities, is called upon to vote for none but those whom prayer and reflection have inspired him to uphold. Moreover, the practice of nomination, so detrimental to the atmosphere of a silent and prayerful election, is viewed with mistrust inasmuch as it gives the right to the majority of a body that, in itself under the present circumstances, often constitutes a minority of all the elected delegates, to deny that God-given right of every elector to vote only in favor of those who he is conscientiously convinced are the most worthy candidates. Should this simple system be provisionally adopted, it would safeguard the spiritual principle of the unfettered freedom of the voter, who will thus preserve intact the sanctity of the choice he first made. It would avoid the inconvenience of securing advance nominations from absent delegates, and the impracticality of associating them with the assembled electors in the subsequent ballots that are often required to meet the exigencies of majority vote.[41]

Thus one kind of argument cited by Shoghi Effendi for banning nominations and favoring plurality-rule rather than sequential majority-rule voting is based on respect for the freedom of conscience of the voter (a noninstrumental value). The problem with nominations is that the freedom of absent delegates would be formally constrained, since they could vote only for those nominated by the delegates present at National Convention.[42] The problem with majority-rule voting arises from the [page 23] successive rounds of voting that were typically required. If each delegate continued in successive rounds to vote as he or she had done before, no candidates would ever receive a majority of votes. The resulting deadlock would mean that voters would feel pressured (though not formally constrained) to vote differently from how they voted when solely considering persons’ qualifications in the first round. It is clear that Shoghi Effendi’s objection is not to majority-rule voting per se; indeed, in principle he seems to consider it superior to plurality rule. His objection is, rather, to the likely possibility of sequential rounds that would pressure voters to change their vote simply to avoid a deadlock.

Another point to note about the long passage quoted from Shoghi Effendi’s May 27, 1927, letter is that his recommendations for institutional rules are grounded in, and derive from, the values to which he appeals. In each case, his recommendation is made on the basis of weighing reasons for and against different sets of rules—reasons deriving from both noninstrumental values (for example, respect for freedom) and instrumental values that hinge on the particular circumstances of the day (for example, efficiency or pragmatic feasibility). It is important to see that respect for the voter’s freedom to express his or her conscience in voting is only one reason among others that Shoghi Effendi considers when recommending plurality rule or the ban on nominations.

Shoghi Effendi’s attention to the context and weight of various reasons, which may pull in different directions, is important because few of the reasons that he cites are of a kind that simply trump all countervailing reasons. Consider, for example, the case of tie votes. In 1927, after there was a tie for ninth place at the British National Convention, the British Bahá’ís decided that the membership of their NSA would consist of that year’s top ten vote-receivers. In response, Shoghi Effendi wrote that “next year, the number of members should be strictly confined to nine, and a second ballot is quite proper and justified” to break the tie.[43] Consequently, under the current institutional rules adopted by NSAs worldwide, when there is a tie, further rounds of voting are held where delegates are only allowed to vote for the persons tied in the previous round (Canadian NSA By-Laws art. 13, §10).[44] This means that even plurality-rule voting potentially has sequential rounds and that the freedom of a voter to vote for whomever he or she wishes is formally restricted in subsequent rounds. It is even possible that none of the tied persons was among the persons for whom the delegate had voted in the first round. The point is that, while, according to Shoghi Effendi, respect for the voter’s freedom of conscience provides a reason against sequential voting of the kind that pressures voters to change their votes, this respect does not provide a trumping reason. Otherwise, Shoghi Effendi [page 24] might have recommended breaking ties by holding a second round in which one could once again vote for anyone, rather than only for the persons who were tied in the previous round. What this respect actually requires may vary according to circumstances, and the reasons it provides for one kind of institutional arrangement may be overridden by countervailing reasons. In the case of ties, the reasons against sequential voting and against restricting for whom one can vote are presumably overridden by pragmatic reasons and by further consideration of what respect for freedom means.

The third and final implication of the core value of freedom for national Bahá’í elections is the requirement that the election process actually be sensitive to the judgment of voters. This third consideration implicitly follows from the first two (the emphasis on widespread participation and respect for the voter’s conscience). To value participation and respect for each participant’s conscience is implicitly to assume that each person’s participation and conscience should matter for electoral outcomes. In other words, it is to assume that ensuring that electoral outcomes are sensitive to the judgment of participants is valuable. (Otherwise, one could select representatives by lot or decree.)

Note that there are two distinct kinds of reason why it might be thought that the judgment of voters should make a difference to electoral outcomes. First, one might defend sensitivity on instrumental grounds: One might think that sensitivity to the views of voters actually helps produce the best outcomes—for example, it [page 25] helps select the most qualified representatives. Such instrumental reasons are indeed important for Bahá’í elections, as we shall see, but they are not the reason under consideration here. Respect for the freedom of the person demands a selection mechanism that is sensitive to the views of voters for noninstrumental reasons—that is, independent of whether taking voters’ judgments into account leads to better outcomes or not. Ensuring widespread participation, respecting the freedom of conscience of each voter, and ensuring that the voting mechanism is sensitive to each person’s judgment is a matter of respecting the dignity and freedom of each person represented, regardless of whether doing so leads to better outcomes.

The core value of equality finds expression in several ways in national Bahá’í electoral rules. The equality of all human beings grounds the formal institutional rule that all adult members of the community in good standing, irrespective of their class, ethnicity, race,[45] or gender,[46] are eligible to participate in the election of delegates, to be elected as delegates, and to be elected as members of the NSA. While respect for the freedom of each voter to vote according to his or her conscience gives rise to the formal institutional rule that all adults in good standing are candidates for election, respect for equality is the basis for the informal norm according to which all forms of discrimination must be eliminated in the voting process.[47] This norm places a crucial spiritual and moral responsibility on all persons to examine critically [page 26] their own attitudes in the voting process, to ensure that they are not voting on the basis of prejudice.[48]

If respect for freedom requires a voting process that is sensitive to the judgment of participants in general, respect for the equality of persons requires a voting process that is sensitive to each voter’s judgment in a roughly equal way. Respect for the freedom and equality of persons thus also requires a voting process that meets basic standards of justice and fairness (see section 3.5 on pages 32–33).

Respect for the nobility of the person and the corresponding institutional rules and informal norms constitute what are perhaps the most distinctive features of Bahá’í elections.[49] The core value of nobility finds expression in at least two ways in Shoghi Effendi’s writings on Bahá’í elections: in the informal norm of individual participant responsibility and in the institutional rules and informal norms designed to safeguard the spiritual dignity of the electoral process.

To begin with, if nobility is premised on the spiritual potential of human beings to realize perfections or virtues of character, respecting this potential is, in part, to place responsibilities upon individuals, responsibilities that are part and parcel of realizing their highest potential. The realization of human potential demands not only education for the individual but also imposes ethical responsibilities on the individual. Hence, while respect for freedom demands the formal institutional right to participate in the selection of one’s own representatives, respect for nobility involves holding the individual ethically responsible for such participation. This is reflected in the informal norm, in Bahá’í elections, according to which such participation is a “sacred duty” and “responsibility.”[50] [page 27]

The second requirement of respect for nobility concerns the institutional context and nature of that participation. Respect for nobility demands electoral institutions and norms that themselves express or embody the dignity they attribute to the persons partaking in elections. Shoghi Effendi has thus interpreted the value of dignity to require a “silent and prayerful” electoral process, in which each individual has the opportunity to vote “after meditation and reflection” in a “rarefied atmosphere of selflessness and detachment” for “none but those whom prayer and reflection have inspired him to uphold.”[51] The spiritual character of the election process gives rise to an injunction against seeking to influence others’ votes by discussing personalities before elections. This injunction against discussing particular candidates, in turn, is the basis for four formal institutional rules: that voting be conducted according to secret ballot; that there be no campaigning, canvassing, or election propaganda; that there be no coalition-, faction-, or party-formation; and that there be no nominations.[52]

The ban on discussion of personalities raises the question, of course, of why discourse or deliberation should be considered as undermining the spiritual character of elections. After all, in other contexts, the Bahá’í writings emphasize the necessity and, indeed, the spiritual character of the process of discourse or consultation.[53] Thus the question is why things should be different here. Why is discussion of how one intends to vote or how others ought to vote contrary to the spiritual character of elections? In fact, Shoghi Effendi does not quite claim that it is. What he says is that discussion should in no way refer to specific persons:

I feel that reference to personalities before the election would give rise to misunderstanding and differences. What the friends should do is to get thoroughly acquainted with one another, to exchange views, to mix freely and discuss among [page28] themselves the requirements and qualifications for such a membership without reference or application, however indirect, to particular individuals. We should refrain from influencing the opinion of others, of canvassing for any particular individual.[54]

Hence this is not an injunction against discussion of the electoral process or of desirable electoral outcomes as such but, rather, an injunction against certain kinds of discussion. The first kind is discussion of particular individuals. The second kind is discourse for the purpose of coalition-, faction-, or party-formation (presumably even if such discourse did not make reference to particular persons).[55] With this clarification in mind, we can now pose the relevant question more precisely. Why would discussion of these kinds compromise respect for the nobility of persons and undermine the spiritual character of elections?

The reasons are several. The first is that allowing discourse about personalities in the context of elections would provide strong institutional incentives for individuals to violate one of the most central Bahá’í moral norms: the prohibition against backbiting, which Bahá’u’lláh directly links to the spiritual potential of human beings. Bahá’u’lláh declares that a human being should “regard backbiting as grievous error, and keep himself aloof from its dominion, inasmuch as backbiting quencheth the light of the heart, and extinguisheth the life of the soul.”[56] To backbite is to undermine the realization of one’s own spiritual potentialities; it is an affront to one’s own nobility. In the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, without attaching any legal sanctions, Bahá’u’lláh goes so far as to morally outlaw backbiting—and this in the same breath as murder.[57]

The appeal to the prohibition against backbiting, however, is open to at least two objections. The first concedes that negative campaigning consists of backbiting, that it is a morally impermissible affront to the dignity of persons, and that it undermines the spiritual character of elections. But the question here is why not simply ban negative discussion of personalities? Why not allow discourse confined to positive statements about particular persons? How, it might be asked, would praise for particular persons undermine the spiritual character of electoral processes? Surely positive speech is not backbiting. (Nominating candidates for election can plausibly be seen as a kind of laudatory speech or “praise” of a person.)

The second objection goes further. It concedes that negative speech about persons constitutes, in many contexts, morally impermissible backbiting, but it rightly points [page 29] out that there are many contexts in which even negative or critical speech about a person’s qualities is morally permissible and even perhaps required. Obvious examples include speech by educators or caregivers in educational, family, or medical contexts; speech by employers or administrators who must evaluate candidates for jobs or posts in professional contexts; speech by participants in judicial proceedings; reporting crimes; or speaking out against atrocities. Perhaps whether something even counts as backbiting depends on what the speaker’s intentions are. While clearly not all “negative” speech about others qualifies as morally forbidden backbiting, what actually constitutes backbiting, for the purposes of this Bahá’í moral norm, has not yet been the subject of systematic philosophical analysis in Bahá’í studies. What is clear, however, is that there are morally significant distinctions to be made between “negative” speech about others depending on the context and the content (and perhaps even intentions).

The second objection thus urges that elections for representatives are precisely one context in which even negative or critical speech about individuals should be permissible. Even negative speech should be permissible in elections, according to this objection, because the central and publicly justifiable purpose of elections is to select representatives with certain qualities, and only through discourse (whether positive or negative) about particular persons could voters come to know which persons possess these qualities. The fact that we are dealing with the election of national representatives makes the objection even stronger because ensuring the qualifications of persons who fill positions of power and authority is particularly urgent. Indeed, one might point to the original Arabic term that “backbiting” translates (al-ghaybah), which connotes the absence of the person spoken of, to argue that backbiting refers only to the private sphere and not to public contexts such as elections. The ban on negative speech in public contexts, it might thus be argued, is premised on the dangerously utopian fantasy of a world without conflict over interests and values.

To assume away conflicts over interests or values when they are inevitable in any society would, indeed, be a dangerous chimera. It would consist in using a façade of harmony to “resolve” conflicts ideologically through the sheer imposition of power by a dominant group. But, in fact, the ban on negative campaigning and, indeed, all reference to personalities in the electoral context is not premised on the false assumption that there are no conflicts of interest or value. The ban is premised, rather, on a particular assumption about how such conflicts are best addressed. This points to the second reason for prohibiting reference to personalities in Bahá’í elections. Bahá’í elections are premised on a complete separation of two functions that in traditional electoral campaigns are fused together: resolving conflicts over interests and values (that is, determining policy) and selecting representatives (that is, determining personnel). This separation assumes that conflicts of interest and value are best addressed by processes of decision making (such as processes [page 30] of consultation or voting) that are directly about the interests or values in question, rather than about personalities. And the primary (instrumental) purpose of NSA elections is to select particular individuals to office, not to resolve policy questions. NSA elections are about determining personnel, not policy. Conflating these two functions procedurally provides incentives for turning conflicts over interests or values into personality conflicts rather than for addressing conflicts through reasoned consultation about the issues themselves.

Ironically, far from devaluing the role of discourse, or presuming a conflict-free fantasy world, the ban on certain kinds of discourse in elections is designed to facilitate the central role of deliberation in conflict resolution. Bahá’í institutions assume that conflict resolution must be conducted by consultation (or, as the case may be, by voting) about the issues; but the election of representatives consists in voting for persons. This separation is well reflected in the very institution of the National Convention itself, which has two fully distinct and separate functions: to advise the new NSA by deliberating about issues of policy and to elect the members of the NSA.[58] The ban on private and public discussion of personalities—whether negative or positive—for the purpose of influencing others’ voting is premised on the institutional separation of these two distinct functions.

The prohibition against discussing personalities in Bahá’í elections is grounded in the noninstrumental value of respect for the dignity of persons. Hence it is important to see that the two objections appeal to the instrumental value of such discussion—as a means for facilitating desirable outcomes. The primary outcome in question, of course, is the election of persons to the NSA who meet the requisite qualifications (by providing voters with the information they need to make informed voting choices about candidates). The problem is that this outcome (and hence some means for securing it) is a value held dearly by Bahá’í electoral institutions as well (for example, to ensure that ethically corrupt or incompetent individuals are not selected as representatives is good.) Thus, if the proposed means for securing the desired end is ruled out on noninstrumental grounds, some other means for securing the outcome must be found. These means, on which Bahá’í institutional rules and informal norms rely, are discussed in section 4.1 on the selection function of Bahá’í elections (pages 34–43). (They center on norms of institutional transparency and universal participation, which are divorced from the election process itself and are centered, instead, on the day-to-day affairs of the community.)

The first reason, then, for the ban on discussing personalities during Bahá’í elections is that permitting such discussion would provide institutional incentives for backbiting and, more generally, negative campaigning against particular persons. The second reason is that this ban facilitates the separation of policy and personality issues. The third reason, not yet considered, is more directly relevant to the issue of “positive” campaigning. The problem with combining elections and even positive discourse about persons is that it provides institutional incentives for individual ego- [page 31] and self-promotion. Such incentives would undermine the virtues of character that the Bahá’í writings portray as helping to constitute the spiritual perfection and nobility of human beings. Invoking the same “dust” that metaphorically grounds the fundamental moral equality of persons, the Hidden Words warn:

O Son of Dust! Verily I say unto thee: Of all men the most negligent is he that disputeth idly and seeketh to advance himself over his brother. Say: O brethren! Let deeds, not words, be your adorning.[59]

The point is that institutions that respect the nobility of persons ought to be consistent with, rather than provide incentives for undermining, the nobility they attribute to persons. (Another distinct reason that cuts against allowing for self-promotion is instrumental: There may be reason to think that individuals who covet positions of authority are precisely not most qualified to fill those positions. Plato expressed this concern long ago in The Republic.)

Of course, it may now be objected that one could disallow positive campaigning for oneself but allow positive campaigning on behalf of others without raising the problem of self-promotion. This may to some extent be correct, but the reasons for banning positive discourse about personalities are distinct. The problem is that positive campaigning on behalf of others is an instrument for coalition- or faction-formation. (There is, as far as I can see, nothing about praising others before elections [page 32] that inherently disrespects the nobility of either the person speaking or the person spoken of. The problem is an instrumental one.) This final consideration assumes that faction-formation undermines the spiritual character of elections. The question is why. The answer depends on remembering what these factions would be about: They would be centered on particular persons—that is, they would be voting coalitions in favor of distinct individuals. Organized campaigning and voting coalitions are contrary to the spirit of Bahá’í elections because they provide institutional incentives for ego-promotion by proxy, deception, and, above all, reifying the cleavages and conflicts in the community and centering these reifications on personality clashes.[60]

In sum: To respect the nobility of the person is to appeal to human beings’ highest spiritual potential, a potential that is portrayed by Bahá’u’lláh’s writings as the very basis for our nobility. This spiritual potential is characterized by human beings’ capacity to act morally and selflessly in their relations with each other. Respect for nobility demands that electoral institutions be consistent with the realization of that potential.

The spiritual character of elections, which expresses the inherent dignity of each person, also expresses the fundamental bond of humanity that unites all persons. Indeed, many of the institutional rules and informal norms that express respect for the nobility of the person individually also express the unity and solidarity of persons collectively. One example is the informal norm that places responsibility on each person to participate in the selection of national representatives: Joint participation also expresses solidarity. A second example is the ban on negative campaigning: Refraining from backbiting implicitly expresses a bond of solidarity with the human being whom one thus protects. A third example is the ban on faction- or coalition-formation in the voting process, which would pit one personality-based group against another.

The value of justice and fairness implies that individual voters ought to be represented in the electoral process, and their judgments aggregated, in a nonarbitrary way—that is to say, in an equal, fair, and rational manner. This requirement gives rise to at least two institutional rules in Bahá’í elections. First, in elections for delegates and for NSA members, the number of votes each voter can cast must be equal in number to those that each other voter can cast. Second, since NSA elections are conducted indirectly via delegates, each delegate must represent roughly an equal number of voters. Shoghi Effendi has explicitly interpreted the value of justice and [page 33] fairness to require such a principle of proportional representation. In a 1925 letter to the NSA of the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada, in which he discusses various ways to organize the two-step process of electing the NSA, Shoghi Effendi rejects, on precisely these grounds, the idea of having the delegates to the National Convention consist of the nine members of each Local Spiritual Assembly:

were the local Spiritual Assemblies, the number of whose members is strictly confined to nine, to elect directly the members of the National Spiritual Assembly . . . all Bahá’í localities, which must necessarily differ in numerical strength, would then have to share equally in the election of the National Spiritual Assembly—a practice which would be contrary to fairness and justice.[61]

This notion of the justice and fairness of institutions is obviously conceptually related to respect for the equality of persons.[62]

4. The Instrumental Value of Bahá’í Electoral Institutions and Norms
While a number of noninstrumental values place important constraints on national Bahá’í electoral institutions and norms, it is clear that, to a large extent, the point of having elections is to yield certain outcomes.[63] The most obvious outcome is, of course, the selection of good representatives. But national Bahá’í elections aspire to serve as an instrument for, and can be justified and evaluated in terms of, at least three other purposes as well: legitimating Bahá’í administrative institutions, fostering virtues of character among individual participants, and fostering unity and solidarity within the community as a whole. Thus there is significant overlap between the values that national Bahá’í elections seek to express and embody—in their own processes, as it were—and the values that they seek to promote instrumentally as outcomes. For example, Bahá’í elections seek not only to respect the nobility of the [page 34] person but also to help participants realize the virtues whose potential is the basis of human nobility; they not only seek inherently to express the unity and solidarity of persons but also actually to lead to greater unity and solidarity in the Bahá’í community. Despite such overlap, it is important to keep in mind the distinction between the noninstrumental and the instrumental value of Bahá’í elections because each consideration actually provides distinct criteria for justifying and evaluating specific institutional rules and informal norms.

National Bahá’í electoral rules and norms are instrumentally valuable to the extent that they facilitate selecting the most desirable national representatives. But what counts as the most desirable national representatives? There are, I suggest, five criteria for judging which national representatives are most desirable.

(1) Bahá’í voters are most familiar with the following criteria given by Shoghi Effendi, according to which those elected as representatives ought to possess the “qualities of unquestioned loyalty, of selfless devotion, of a well-trained mind, of recognized ability and mature experience” and be “faithful, sincere, experienced, capable and competent.”[64] This first set of criteria specifies the qualities that the individuals who hold office ought to possess. Bahá’í electoral processes are instrumentally valuable, then, to the extent that they help cause individuals who meet these criteria be selected as representatives.

(2) But the purpose of national Bahá’í elections is not simply to elect individuals to office; it is to elect a collective body. The quality of an Assembly will depend not merely on the separate qualifications of each individual representative but also on the way that these individuals combine to complement one another as a whole. For example, the nine individuals who make up an Assembly may all be loyal, selfless, intellectually well-trained, and so on. But, if all nine members have exactly the same life experiences and come from exactly the same background, the lack of diversity may diminish the quality of the Assembly even though all the individuals who make [page 35] up the Assembly are, considered individually, fully qualified. The second type of criteria, then, specifies the qualities that the collective Assembly ought to have as a whole, independent of the qualifications of the individuals considered separately.[65] Shoghi Effendi specifically mentions four such criteria: diversity, representativeness, minority presence, and youth presence in the collective membership of the Assembly.

(2a)The criterion of diversity arises from a core Bahá’í value expressed by `Abdu’l-Bahá. He extols diversity as contributing “to the beauty, efficiency and perfection of the whole” and states that, “when divers shades of thought, temperament and character, are brought together under the power and influence of one central agency, the beauty and glory of human perfection will be revealed and made manifest.”[66] [page 36] Shoghi Effendi, referring to this passage, concludes that the “watchword” of the Bahá’í legal system is “unity in diversity.”[67] A 1934 letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to the NSA of India, Burma, and Pakistan specifically suggests that the concept of unity in diversity means that a diverse NSA membership is desirable.[68]

(2b)That outcomes of Bahá’í elections are to be evaluated collectively is also clear from Shoghi Effendi’s comment that “The Assembly should be representative of the choicest and most varied and capable elements in every Bahá’í community.”[69] This comment not only reiterates the criterion of diversity but also provides a second criterion for evaluating the collective nature of Assembly membership: An Assembly ought to be representative of (the diversity present in) the community itself. Shoghi Effendi reiterates this when he says that Bahá’í elections must serve to “reinforce the representative character of Bahá’í institutions.”[70]

(2c)The third criterion that Shoghi Effendi provides (which is a corollary of the first two) requires the presence of minority groups in the collective membership of the Assembly. Shoghi Effendi refers to

the duty of every Bahá’í community so to arrange its affairs that in cases where individuals belonging to the divers minority elements within it are already qualified and fulfill the necessary requirements, Bahá’í representative institutions, be they Assemblies, conventions, conferences, or committees, may have represented on them as many of these divers elements, racial or otherwise, as possible.[71]

The qualifying clause “in cases where” indicates that this collective criterion, which recommends the presence of minorities on an Assembly, only comes into play once the qualifications of the individuals, considered separately as individuals, can also [page 37] be secured. (In other words, the criterion of minority presence is subordinate to ensuring that the individuals are loyal, selfless, intellectually well-trained, and so on.)

Shoghi Effendi appeals to diversity, representativeness, and minority presence to provide one justification for the formal institutional rule that in the case of ties priority be given to the member of a minority group.[72]

(2d)A fourth criterion (which is another corollary of the criterion of diversity) is mentioned in a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi: that some of the membership of the NSA be young.[73]

All four of these criteria—diversity, representativeness, minority presence, and youth presence—demonstrate why it is crucial to distinguish the qualifications of individuals considered separately from the qualifications that apply to the Assembly’s membership taken as a collective whole. Being a member of a minority group or being young is obviously not a criterion for determining whether any particular individual is qualified to be a representative. The second type of criteria refers to values that can only be specified in relation to the collective nature of an Assembly as a whole, not the individual members’ qualifications.

3) The first two types of criteria we have just considered (the qualifications of individual NSA members and the nature of the collective body) tell us what would be a desirable electoral outcome in any particular single election. But a set of electoral rules and norms may also affect how electoral outcomes change over time, over a series of elections. The third set of criteria thus tell us what kind of changes would be desirable over time. A letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi provides two such criteria. Bahá’í electoral rules and norms should facilitate the replacement of individual representatives who perform badly or unethically in office and the improvement, between elections, of the quality of the individuals serving on the Assembly:

The elections, especially when annual, give the community a good opportunity to remedy any defect or imperfection from which the Assembly may suffer as a result of the actions of its members. Thus a safe method has been established [page 38] whereby the quality of membership in Bahá’í Assemblies can be continually raised and improved.[74]

(4) But the quality of an Assembly, as we have seen, is dependent not just on the qualifications of the individuals who comprise it; it is also dependent on how those individuals complement one another collectively. Electoral rules and norms can also affect how this collective nature of an Assembly changes over time. Shoghi Effendi provides two criteria under this category: that there be improvement in the collective quality of the Assembly and that there be turnover, for the sake of change itself, in the membership of the NSA from year to year.

The criterion of improvement comes from the passage cited in the third criterion just above: To say that “the quality of membership in Bahá’í Assemblies” ought to be “continually raised and improved” is also to say that the collective nature of the Assembly (and not just the qualifications of individuals considered separately) ought to be improved over time.

The criterion of turnover is explicitly mentioned in a letter written on Shoghi Effendi’s behalf: “He was very happy to see that changes had been made in the membership of the National Spiritual Assembly this year, not from any reasons of personality, but because change itself is good and brings a fresh outlook into the discussions [page 39] of any Assembly.”[75] The italicized part of the statement makes it quite clear that it is not the qualifications of particular individuals that are at stake; rather, it is the collective nature of the Assembly as a whole over time. Two other letters written on Shoghi Effendi’s behalf, however, point to two restrictions on this criterion of turnover. One letter indicates that turnover should not be achieved by sacrificing the quality of the membership of the NSA. (In other words, the criterion of turnover is subordinate to the first and second types of criteria.)[76] Another letter written on his behalf reiterates that turnover should not be achieved by institutional rules (such as the imposition of term limits) that force turnover by restricting the freedom of voters or by ignoring how delegates have actually voted:

Shoghi Effendi has never said that the members of the National Assembly have to be renewed partially every year. The important thing is that they should be properly elected. It would be nice if there should be new members elected, for new blood always adds to the energy of the group and will keep up their spirit. But this depends entirely upon the will of the delegates as represented in the result of their voting.[77]

As we have seen, the justification for avoiding mechanisms such as term-limits, which force change over repeated elections, is the noninstrumental value of respect for the freedom of persons to vote for whomever their conscience moves them.

(5) The first four types of criteria we have considered (qualifications of individual NSA members, the nature of the collective body, changes in individual membership that would be desirable over time, and changes in the collective make-up of the Assembly over time) tell us what makes electoral outcomes desirable, according to Bahá’í values, independent of any reference to the judgment or views of voters themselves. But the fact that elections are held at all indicates that another set of criteria is also relevant for judging electoral outcomes: Electoral outcomes must be sensitive to the views of voters. The views of voters themselves matter. The reference to the “will of the delegates” in the passage above already makes this clear. And we have already seen that making sure that voting outcomes are sensitive to voters’ views is noninstrumentally valuable: Sensitivity expresses respect for the freedom (and conscience) of the person. But sensitivity can also be valuable on purely instrumental [page 40] grounds: Making sure that outcomes reflect the views of voters can be an efficient means for making sure that the best representatives are selected to office. For example, elections may be a better method than, say, lotteries or unilateral decrees for ensuring that loyal or selfless persons be selected as representatives. (Or the sensitivity of outcomes may help legitimate representative institutions in the eyes of the general community.) The point is that the sensitivity of voting outcomes to voters’ views is valuable not only for noninstrumental reasons, but for instrumental ones as well.

Voters may, of course, have views (a) about which individuals are most qualified to serve on an NSA, (b) about what the collective nature of the NSA should be, (c) about how the individual membership of the NSA should change over time, and (d) about how the collective nature of the NSA should change over time. Outcomes can thus be sensitive to voters’ judgments in four ways that parallel the first four types of criteria we already considered.

(a) For example, assume that Canadian voters believe that their national representatives should each have a deep acquaintance of the multicultural and bilingual makeup of their country. In that case, electoral rules and norms are valuable to the extent that electoral outcomes help voters elect individual representatives with such knowledge.

(b) Normally voters will also have specific views about what the collective composition of their NSA should look like. For example, they may prefer that one candidate who is quirky and creative be elected to office only if some other candidate who is down-to-earth and meticulous is also elected. This judgment may be based on voters’ knowledge that the qualities of these two individuals would only be strengths for the NSA if combined with and balanced by each other. Elections should be sensitive to such views about the combination of individuals too. [page 41]

(c) Recall that, according to the third type of criteria, replacing an NSA member who is guilty of unethical conduct is valuable even if voters did not actually wish his or her replacement (they may not be aware of his or her misconduct, for example). But the criterion of sensitivity requires that electoral rules and norms also facilitate the replacement of a particular representative when voters believe that such change is desirable. A voter may believe, for example, that a particular NSA member ought to be replaced because of some misconduct. Or perhaps the voter simply believes that times and circumstances have changed and that the specific qualities the individual would bring to the NSA are no longer the assets that they once were.

(d) Again, a voter may also have views, not about the replacement of a particular individual but about how the collective membership as a whole ought to change over time. Thus the electoral rules and norms of Bahá’í elections ought to be sensitive to voters’ judgments about the need for turnover as well. This desire for
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