Friday, October 14, 2011

Bondage by Baha'i Election

Based on abundant statistics, many commentators have noted that voters in Baha'i elections tend to re-elect previously elected members of Baha'i administrative units at the local, national and international levels. The innocent persons elected are punished by a sort of bondage to the extent that they are constrained by the obligations of this circumstance. Instead of being rewarded for their good behaviors and character, the elected suffer a penalty which may result in a "life sentence" to do administrative work, which in almost all cases is not their first love, primary interest, career specialty or goal in their life work. The situation is so bad that the only escape for most victims of Baha'i voters is to insist on retirement due to old age or sickness, or just to drop dead after many decades, forcing voters to select another victim. This article explores some background and possible solutions for this injustice.

What is the Baha'i Administration?
Instead of local mayors (or war lords) and national presidents or prime ministers (or dictators) in secular government, the administration of the Baha'i world community consists of nine-member, elected Local Spiritual Assemblies (LSA) and National Spiritual Assemblies (NSA) respectively. Similarly, at the international level, the highest administrative unit is the Universal House of Justice (UHJ).

About Baha'i Elections
As an introduction to Baha'i elections, emphasizing their "spiritual nature", the U.S. Baha'i web site writes:
There is no class of ecclesiastics or clergy in the Baha’i Faith. Instead, Baha’is use an administrative framework provided by their prophet founder Baha’u’llah. In His writings, he detailed a system of elected lay councils at the local, national and international levels to oversee the Faith. Baha’is 21 and older enjoy the right to vote in Baha’i elections and serve as members of Baha’i administrative institutions. All Baha’i elections are held by secret ballot and plurality vote. Baha’i elections have no candidacies, nominations, partisanship, campaigning, or electioneering...

The Bahá’í writings specifically encourage the election of individuals with recognized ability, maturity, experience, and humility,...who possess qualities of selflessness, intellectual capacity, moral integrity, and wisdom...

One of the most intriguing aspects of this process is the absence of a prepared ballot -- or of any system of nominations. Instead, every adult Bahá’í in the community is eligible for election to the Local Spiritual Assembly (the nine-member council in each locality that administers community affairs). On Election Day, after a period of prayer and meditation -— and with due regard to the relevant guidance in the Baha’i scripture -— each adult votes for the nine individuals that he or she feels are best qualified to serve as Assembly members.
Unjust Bondage of the Elected
The Baha'i writings emphasize the merits of service to others, to society and to the Baha'i community, such as performing administrative duties as an elected LSA, NSA or UHJ member. In the community, election to these institutions is generally positively regarded as an honor, an opportunity for service, a religious duty and the like. This service usually entails significant sacrifice of personal time and resources of the elected member. Nonetheless, Baha'i voters tend to keep re-electing the same persons to serve, seemingly oblivious to the degree of sacrifice they impose on those whom they elect.

Administration is only one of many hundreds of job descriptions. As mentioned above, the odds that an elected member has any true interest in that sort of work are very low. Indeed, some surveys have shown more interest among Baha'is in the social and spiritual teachings of the Baha'i Faith than in its administration and serving in it. Hence, once any "glow" of being elected wears off, what remains is pure administrative work. The majority of people are not specifically interested in administration as a trade or work specialty and therefore find this work to be boring and frustrating. Nonetheless, this work must be done and most Baha'is who find that they have been elected to an LSA, NSA or the UHJ forge on and dutifully serve as members.

On the other hand, the sacrifice of this service and work can be substantial and some may actively avoid being elected by not attending the election, applying the "out of sight, out of mind" rule, hoping that they will not receive votes if absent.
Sad to say, the author has used this technique. Having served on the NSA of the Commonwealth of Dominica for several years and given some unusual circumstances described elsewhere, I simply did not attend the national convention. Bingo. I was not elected for the next NSA term.
Given this situation, one might think that the voters would show some modicum of kindness and elect new members in each election cycle providing some relief for the innocents they voted for in the previous election. This could happen if ballots from voters list nine names, none of which presently serve as members from the previous election. The feasibility of this approach may be considered at the local, national and international levels of Baha'i administration.

Local Spiritual Assemblies. Some Baha'i communities are small with only nine or few more adult members eligible for election. In these cases, the ability of voters to rotate LSA members may be limited. However, if some rotation is achieved in the yearly LSA elections, one benefit is that the new blood serving on the LSA gains some administrative skills and may bring new ideas and approaches.

Some LSAs serve Baha'i communities numbering in the hundreds where it is reasonable to suppose that many dozens of persons have the qualities described above for election to a degree which is more than sufficient. Therefore, in these LSA elections, it appears to be feasible to elect a completely new set of LSA members yearly, no doubt to the enduring benefit of the community.

National Spiritual Assemblies. In countries where the Baha'i population is small, the number of eligible adults may be limited as in smaller local communities as described for LSAs. However, in countries with much larger Baha'i communities -- for example, the United States, India, Iran, etc, there really is no excuse for failure to elect an entirely new set of NSA members in each yearly election. In these countries, surely there are dozens or many hundreds of persons with ample desired qualities. Meanwhile the need to rotate elected members is much greater. For example, NSA meetings might be scheduled monthly and last several days, during which members are away from their work and families. Not to mention the resources needed for travel over great distances for some members to attend these meetings. Thus, anybody serving for one year on an NSA probably deserves a well-earned break.

The Universal House of Justice. At the international level, the factors cited above are most evident. Given the size of the international Baha'i community in the millions, there are no doubt many thousands, if not tens of thousands, with achievements and character more than sufficient to serve if elected.

The sacrifice side of the coin is also magnified. Election to the UHJ has required physical relocation to its facilities at the Baha'i World Centre in Haifa, Israel. This typically involves a significant, if not complete, cessation of the work or trade of the elected member. Given the climate, culture and general ambiance of Israel, who exactly would otherwise decide to move there? Very few. Not only that, Israel is clearly a rather dangerous place, in or near present or potential war zones. Even many Israelis are moving out of Israel precisely because of these security concerns. Yet an elected Baha'i is expected to move to Israel, typically bringing family perhaps including children.

But the situation is even worse. The regular UHJ elections are not yearly, but every five years. Those who are elected are looking at five years of administrative service and sacrifice. One has to commit a felony crime to get a sentence of five years of confinement. Yet Baha'i voters think nothing of re-electing members for periods of two decades or more!

On the other hand, the UHJ is the central guiding hand of the Baha'i community and most look beyond the sorts of sacrifice described by thinking of the importance of this service.

In sum, this voter behavior disregards the possibility that thousands of others could be elected and do an equally good job in rendering administrative services.

Best Qualified To Serve
The quotation above states that each voter "votes for the nine individuals that he or she feels are best qualified to serve..." Consider that in the yearly LSA and NSA elections and in those every five years for the UHJ, much change can occur. Specifically, many of those who were not previously elected no doubt become more qualified in this time. Also, some who were elected may well have become less qualified over the same time interval.

However, Baha'i voters appear to behave as if nothing changes over the years, that nobody has become more qualified, that nobody has become less qualified and that no social changes have occurred which might affect their subjective ratings of "best qualified". The assumption that nothing has changed is not necessarily accurate. It might be concluded that the persistent re-election of the same persons to serve on the LSA, NSA and UHJ levels is not only unjust to those persons, but also most probably inconsistent with voter duty to vote for the "best qualified".

In the Baha'i administration, both the voters and the elected members are supposed to act according to the dictates of their own conscience -- in voting and administering respectively. It may follow that if a voter deems that members of an LSA, NSA or UHJ have not done a good job, then others in the community might in fact be "best qualified" to serve after the next election. Although this factor -- voter evaluation of how well present administrators have performed -- is a major consideration, the present article emphasizes the need to show kindness to those who have been elected as a simple matter of justice, namely by allowing them to return to their preferred activities prior to serving in the administration.

What is "Best Qualified"?
At the practical level, two components of "best qualified" may be discerned. The first is the personal attributes of individuals briefly described above related to accomplishments in work or a trade and character development. The second component is the degree to which an individual will bring new ideas, new perspectives and other creative inputs to their prospective administrative work if elected, to enhance the development and welfare of the institution and community at large. This might be called the creative potential component.

This second component will tend to decrease over time for previously elected members. During their 1 or 5 year term of service, there is ample opportunity for present members to inject this "creative potential" component into the consultation and deliberations of the institution. Hence, the clear trend for present members is an ongoing decrease in overall "best qualified" rating, although Baha'i voters appear to ignore this decline which is all but inevitable for presently serving members. It follows that the longer a particular person serves, the creative potential component of "best qualified" decreases until it finally approaches zero.

In short, given equal qualifications on the first "personal attributes" component, it is most likely that "best qualified" applies to eligible persons other than those previously elected when the second "creative potential" component is considered. Quite simply, new members are more likely to bring fresh ideas, approaches, experience and perspectives to the benefit of the LSA, NSA and UHJ institutions and the communities served. After serving one term, the new members have generally had ample time to persuade other members to support those new approaches or not. In either case, the "best qualified" descriptor for present members typically declines over time.

Possible Solutions
Several possible remedies for the injustice of re-electing LSA, NSA and UHJ members "for life" may be considered, although each might be seen at present as exploratory or experimental:

1. Ballots that do not name existing members. Described above, in most cases, this method is feasible given a sufficient number of qualified persons available to serve. Further, if Baha'i voters typically re-elect existing members, there is the advantage that the voter already knows those names and can, if desired, review his or her ballot to be sure that none of these names are listed.

2. Timed individual or mass resignations. Given the degree to which Baha'i voters have demonstrated an inability to vote for the "best qualified", which is a changing variable over time, elected members might decide to announce their resignation at the end of their present term. Even if voters insisted on voting for them again, voters could be notified that this would be futile since further voting would be required in any case to fill the vacancies. This method to remedy the injustice is feasible and no doubt more effective. The resigning members have any number of valid and believable justifications ranging from "personal reasons" to "other obligations" to "welfare of the community".

If the body -- LSA, NSA or UHJ -- decides as an administrative unit that the best interests of the community would be served by a new set of qualified members, this action would be very effective. For one thing, the voters elected them to deliberate and make decisions on such matters, and this resignation process is their prerogative. In effect, the body is stating that elected members will be treated fairly by voters and not arbitrarily sentenced to "life terms" as administrators in the absence of any firm, reliable basis in fact or in accordance with Baha'i principles.

Historically, previous resignations have been accepted at the UHJ and other administrative levels showing that this solution is workable.

Finally, given the past performance of Baha'i voters to trivialize the task of selecting the "best qualified" by defining that as "was previously elected", there should be no stigma attached to those who resign at the end of their term or to all nine members similarly resigning together. To the contrary, successful remedy of this election injustice might well stimulate a new impulse of creativity and growth in the Baha'i community.

3. Formalized consecutive term limits. LSA and NSA by-laws or the Constitution of the UHJ might be modified or amended to formalize limits for consecutive terms of service, perhaps limiting such terms to a single election cycle (1 year for LSA and NSA; 5 years for the UHJ). Persons who have served a term would become eligible for election again after a subsequent election cycle elapses. Specific exceptions for some LSA and NSA regions with very small Baha'i populations and number of eligible members could be defined.

Consecutive term limits might have several advantages. Dedicated Baha'is would not depend on voter kindness or wisdom to provide them with some freedom from the obligation of administrative service, which in effect would be cut in half or more from present abusive 100 percent levels. Further, option #3 would establish more stable and predicable expectations in the community and stimulate investigation by voters to identify those "best qualified" well in advance of upcoming elections. In addition, any stigma that might be associated with individual or mass resignations synchronized with the election cycle in option #2 above would be avoided.

Summary and Conclusion
The present analysis supports the thesis that Baha'i voters may have excessive power in the Baha'i community. In the secular world, a person might have to commit first degree murder to receive a life sentence of confinement. In contrast, Baha'i voters have the power to subject some of the most qualified Baha'is to a life sentence of administrative work which for most is pure drudgery. This glaring injustice might be remedied by Baha'i voters voluntarily moderating their power in option #1 above (voting for a new set of members). In addition, elected members and institutions may counter this tremendous voter power by asserting, in effect, that they have given their "pound of flesh" and that voters need to exercise their obligation in Baha'i elections in a more fair and balanced manner, via options #2 (timed individual or mass resignations) or #3 (formalized consecutive term limits).
© 2011 James J Keene