Baha’i elections are inherently different than elections we may participate in or observe outside of the Baha’i Faith. Baha’is elect our Local, National and Global administrative councils. That is, we elect Local and National Spiritual Assemblies and the Universal House of Justice. Local Spiritual Assemblies are elected directly by members of local Baha’i communities, while the other bodies are elected indirectly through the delegate system. Local Spiritual Assembly members directly elect Regional Baha’i Councils.
The delegates that local communities in America will send to the Baha’i National Center in Wilmette, IL in April to elect the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States will themselves be elected during Electoral Unit Conventions in October.
The process of electing a National Spiritual Assembly begins when we receive our ballots in the mail from the Baha’i National Center a month before the election takes place. The voting materials consist of two envelopes and a single blank piece of paper. One envelope has a place for the voter’s name and address (for mail-in absentee ballots); the other is featureless, except to note that it contains a delegate ballot. The ballot itself is blank, because there are no nominees for delegate—every ballot is a write-in ballot. The unmarked inner envelope ensures the confidentiality of a secret ballot.
While Baha’is can mail their ballots in, we are all encouraged to attend our unit convention in person, congregating with other Baha’is in our electoral area. In San Jose, we gather at our local Baha’i Center on a Sunday morning in October. We usually have breakfast together, then gather in the main hall where we elect a convention chairman and secretary. Then we vote for the one delegate we will send to the National Convention in Wilmette, Illinois in April (during the Festival of Ridvan).
The mechanics of a Baha’i unit convention seem simple: We pray, there is music, then we are reminded about what to look for in those we choose to serve in this capacity: people who combine such qualities as unquestioned loyalty, selfless devotion, a well-trained mind, recognized ability and mature experience.
We all aspire to these qualities as members of the electorate. Ideally, though, we have become acquainted with both the principles of our Faith and the people we elect, so that we have a sense of the spiritual qualities they possess. Then, we silently and prayerfully cast our votes with thoughtful consideration of those qualities, but without passion, prejudice, or regard for material concerns.
Baha’i communities all over the world use the same criteria when they elect their Local Spiritual Assemblies; the democratically-elected, nine-member bodies that administer the affairs of local Baha’i communities. Instead of one blank space on a ballot sheet, each Baha’i votes directly for the nine people who will serve on their Assembly. When our delegate casts a ballot for the nine members of the National Spiritual Assembly, the same process occurs: nine blank spaces, which each delegate fills in with the names of those they believe have the qualities mentioned above.
How do Baha’is nominate those they vote for? We don’t. Every adult Baha’i in the electoral unit, from the local to the international level, is eligible to serve. No nominations means no campaigning, no electioneering, and no discussion of personalities. There are no political factions or parties, no debates, and no warring constituencies. Baha’is elect every administrative body this way—including the Universal House of Justice, the guiding body for the global Baha’i community.
This works. It’s been working since 1899, when the first elected Baha’i institutions came into being in Tehran, Iran and Chicago, Illinois. It builds unity, avoids the pitfalls of traditional politics and results in principled leadership.
Naturally, this sort of process requires that the electorate be well-informed about the qualities necessary for serving selflessly on a collaborative and consultative body, and the character of the people they vote for. This intentional design gives Baha’is yet one more reason to get to know each other as members of an extended family.
Why does the Baha’i system work this way? Because Baha’u’llah, himself, dictated that his Faith would have no clergy, and designed democratically-elected institutions to carry out the tasks necessary to the functioning of the community, to protect the Faith, and to serve the believers. He wrote:
The Lord hath ordained that in every city a House of Justice be established wherein shall gather counsellors to the number of [nine]… They should consider themselves as entering the Court of the presence of God, the Exalted, the Most High, and as beholding Him Who is the Unseen. It behoveth them to be the trusted ones of the Merciful among men and to regard themselves as the guardians appointed of God for all that dwell on earth. It is incumbent upon them to take counsel together and to have regard for the interests of the servants of God, for His sake, even as they regard their own interests, and to choose that which is meet and seemly. – The Most Holy Book, p. 30.
Stay tuned for more on Baha’i Elections and the Administrative Order in future posts.