With no nominations or campaigning, how does the Baha'i electoral process work?

HAIFA, Israel - In a world where democratic elections are valued in principle but strained in practice, the electoral process used by the worldwide Bahá'í community suggests a distinctive alternative.

Those who have studied the Bahá'í system say its features are unlike anything in common use - but are nevertheless manifestly democratic, transparent, and representative. Distinctive aspects of Bahá'í elections include:

  • No nominations. Instead, the entire adult community is eligible for office, giving electors ultimate freedom of choice.
  • No campaigning. As such, money, negative advertising, and ego are entirely absent from the process.
  • No parties. Instead, the emphasis on choosing qualified people, not making promises or linking to a platform.

Taken all together, these and other features, combine to create a system that is "eminently democratic - indeed more so than any other system in existence," said Michael Karlberg, author of Beyond the Culture of Contest, which among other things examines the Bahá'í governance system.

Dr. Karlberg and others state that such procedures shift the emphasis from the dynamics of power, personality, money, and constituencies to a paradigm of service and rational consultation, with an emphasis on the good of all.

"There is no professional path a person must follow or political roles he or she must take before being considered worthy of election," said Wendi Momen, who was a member of the national governing council of the Bahá'í community of the United Kingdom for 23 years. "The qualities of those elected are not political capacities but qualities of the spirit reflected in the day to day actions of that individual.

"In other words, we believe a person's life is reflected in their service to the community, and so we would be looking at candidates in terms of how well do their words match their deeds," said Ms. Momen.

How it works

At all levels - local, national, and international - Bahá'í elections follow a common procedure.

First, the electorate is composed of all Bahá'ís over the age of 21 in the given geographic area - whether a municipality, a nation, or the world.

The electors gather (or use mail-in ballots) and, after prayer and reflection, each elector writes down the names of the nine people that he or she feels are most qualified to serve.

At the local and national levels, any adult Bahá'í within the electorate pool is eligible for election. Women make up between 35-40 percent of the total membership of national and continental institutions worldwide. For the Universal House of Justice, any adult male Bahá'í from anywhere in the world is eligible for election. Membership on that body is limited to men because of a specific stipulation in the Bahá'í sacred writings, the wisdom of which, it is promised, will become clear in the future.

Balloting is secret, with no nominations, campaigning or pledges to specific policies, parties, or platforms.

After the votes are counted, the nine people who receive the most votes are elected. At the local and national levels, elections are conducted every year. At the international level, for the Universal House of Justice, elections are held every five years.

In general, said Brian Lepard, a professor of law at the University of Nebraska, "the fact that everyone is eligible to be elected opens up the whole process in a way that is far more democratic than the current process in any country.

"In many countries, not only do you have to decide to be a candidate and to run, but you also need lots of money to do that. And there are many talented and capable people who don't have the money or resources to run. So that severely restricts the choice that people have," said Dr. Lepard.

Moreover, said Dr. Lepard and others, the focus is on choosing individuals for their experience and inherent capacities, rather than their positions on issues.

"There is no need to know the ‘positions' that individuals have on specific issues because individuals are not elected for their positions," said Dr. Karlberg, who is an associate professor of communication at Western Washington University. "Rather, they are elected for qualities such as trustworthiness, integrity, loyalty, selfless devotion, a well-trained mind, recognized ability, and mature experience.

"They are, in effect, elected based on their ability to apply principles, within a process of collective decision making, to the solution of problems, to the articulation of policies, and to the identification of courses of action," said Dr. Karlberg.

These and other concepts in Bahá'í elections tend to lead to the election of candidates of considerable breadth of background and experience.

"Last year the election of our National Spiritual Assembly in Guinea, three new members were elected - all very capable and with a record of devoted and selfless service," said Thelma Khelghati, a member of that body.

"One was a university student who had been very active in organizing our national youth conference and also in conducting study circles and children's classes. Another was a farmer from a community where they have daily devotional meetings at six in the morning. The third was a devoted Bahá'í with a PhD in Industrial Psychology from a university in the former Soviet Union who works for an NGO in the education sector in Guinea.

"For me, that these three capable, selfless and devoted individuals could be elected without any nomination, propaganda or electioneering was tangible proof that the system does work," said Ms. Khelghati.