Perspective: Some thoughts on elections

The rise of democracy and democratic processes worldwide is a positive trend. Over the last decade, an increasing number of countries have adopted systems involving free elections, representational governance, and strong human rights standards.

At the same time, achieving and maintaining good governance remains a challenge - even for nations with a history of democratic processes.

In some countries, corruption, mud-slinging, negative campaigning, vote pandering and indecisiveness have led to voter apathy on a scale that threatens the integrity of the whole system. In other places, new democratic experiments are threatened by a host of problems and forces, including a lack of experience, ages-old ethnic tensions, and varying cultural expectations.

Growing numbers of people have lost faith in their leaders, become cynical about their governmental systems, and abnegated the responsibilities of citizenship.

A remarkable alternative to these trends can be found in the experience of the worldwide Bahá'í community, which conducts its affairs through freely elected governing councils at the local, national and international levels.

Of particular current interest is the issue of elections, a process which stands at the foundation of any system of governance.

Many aspects of the Bahá'í electoral system are similar to the best practices of other systems: elections are held on a regular basis and office-holders have set terms; secret ballots are used at all levels; and all adult community members, regardless of race, sex, or ethnicity, are eligible to vote.

At the same time, however, Bahá'í elections are set apart by a number of distinctive characteristics. For example, there are no nominations or other devices for establishing candidacy. In most cases, everyone in the entire electorate is considered eligible for office. Further, there is no campaigning or solicitation of any kind. Nor are there ideological factions or political parties.

While, at first glance, the absence of nominations, campaigning or parties may sound unworkable, the system has in fact proved eminently practical, leading to a stable, peaceful, and corruption-resistant system of administration that draws the best into the community's public life.

Perhaps the best way to explain how Bahá'í elections work is to describe the process used to choose members at the local level in the Bahá'í administrative order, the local Spiritual Assembly, as local Bahá'í governing councils are known.

Charged with overseeing Bahá'í affairs within a given local area (usually a city, town, or village, but sometimes a regional district), the local Spiritual Assembly is composed of nine adult members who reside in the community it serves. It is elected annually.

The election process is quite simple. Each year in April, all adult members of the community gather and, in an atmosphere of prayer and reflection, cast ballots upon which they have written the names of the nine adults from that community who they feel are best qualified to serve as leaders.

The results are tallied on the spot, by tellers chosen by the electors at the gathering, and the nine individuals who receive a plurality of votes become members of the Assembly.

While simple in practice, this method of electing leaders drawn from the community as a whole has significant benefits as a system of governance. These include:

o Complete freedom of choice. Since there are no nominations or "candidates," as such, the individual voter has absolute freedom to vote for those individuals who he or she feels are most qualified.

o Freedom of conscience in decision-making. Those who are elected to the Assembly find themselves completely unencumbered by campaign promises. They are beholden to no constituency, party or sub-group of voters. When the Assembly meets, its members are entirely free to speak and vote according to their conscience when engaged in decision-making.

o No financial influence. Since there is no campaigning, there is no need for campaign money and the corruption that so often follows it.

o An emphasis on moral leadership. Since there are no nominations or electioneering, personalities who run for office chiefly to advance their own ideas, careers or sense of privilege have no advantage - and in fact are at a disadvantage because of the emphasis on the spiritual and moral qualities for which Bahá'í voters look.

o A different conception of political power. Because decision-making authority rests with corporate bodies, the Bahá'í system does not allow the imposition of the arbitrary will or leadership of individuals and it cannot be used as a pathway to power. All members of the Bahá'í community, no matter what position they may temporarily occupy in the administrative structure, are expected to regard themselves as involved in a learning process, as they strive to understand and implement the laws and principles of their Faith.

Taken all together, the Bahá'í system inherently seeks to draw into community service a new type of leader, one who has won the notice of his or her fellow community members because of his or her humility, penchant for quiet service, and moral and intellectual strength.

Shoghi Effendi, who led the Bahá'í Faith from 1921 to 1957, spelled out the qualities that Bahá'ís should look for when they vote, urging electors at all levels to "consider without the least trace of passion and prejudice, and irrespective of any material consideration, the names of only those who can best combine the necessary qualities of unquestioned loyalty, of selfless devotion, of a well-trained mind, of recognized ability and mature experience..."

The system also encourages voter responsibility and community development. Again, to quote Shoghi Effendi:

"Bahá'í electoral procedures and methods have, indeed, for one of their essential purposes the development in every believer of the spirit of responsibility. By emphasizing the necessity of maintaining his full freedom in the elections, they make it incumbent upon him to become an active and well-informed member of the Bahá'í community in which he lives.

"To be able to make a wise choice at the election time, it is necessary for him to be in close and continued contact with all local activities, be they teaching, administrative or otherwise, and to fully and whole-heartedly participate in the affairs of the local as well as national committees and assemblies in his country.

"Bahá'í community life thus makes it a duty for every loyal and faithful believer to become an intelligent, well-informed and responsible elector, and also gives him the opportunity of raising himself to such a station."

The entire procedure stands as an important component of grassroots action and involvement in the Bahá'í community.

The system also operates at national and international levels. For example, National Spiritual Assemblies, as the national-level Bahá'í governing councils are known, are elected without nominations or campaigning at national conventions composed of delegates who were elected at the district level using similar procedures. And the Faith's international governing council, the Universal House of Justice, is elected once every five years by an electorate composed of the members of all National Spiritual Assemblies.

In this way, Bahá'ís at the local level are just three steps away, in terms of their vote, from electing the Faith's highest-level body.

There are currently some 180 National Spiritual Assemblies around the world, and in some countries they represent one of the few truly democratic institutions in existence.

The Bahá'í system of elections is rooted in a spiritual process that depends heavily on the high-minded motivations of its electorate and their prayerful attitude when casting ballots. Its successes cannot be separated from this fact. Nevertheless, the world at large can learn much from a thorough study of Bahá'í election procedures and practices.