baha’i elections revisited

baha'i election - voting at the canadian national convention, © Louis Brunet (elbi.smugmug.com)Arash Abizadeh is a well-known name in the field of Baha’i studies—not the least in Ottawa, since he teaches Political Science at nearby McGill University in Montreal—and perhaps better known than ever since his work was featured by the U.S. Baha’i News Service in an article about Baha’i elections.

The work in question is How Baha’i Voters Should Vote, an article in progress examining the criteria Baha’is should use in electing the members of their governing bodies. This article, along with a previous one on the nature of Baha’i elections, provides a welcome and timely glimpse into the unique Baha’i electoral process, and offers particular insight into the recent March 25, 2007 letter of the Universal House of Justice on Baha’i elections.

Baha’i elections—commonplace during the Baha’i festival of Ridván—are democratic in nature, but preclude nominations, campaigning, or any other form of electioneering—making it instead the spiritual prerogative of every elector to vote only for those people whom, after prayerful reflection, he is convinced are qualified for membership on the governing body in question. This unique process puts far greater responsibility on the individual elector than has ever been witnessed in any form of governance—and naturally, some find themselves at a loss as to how to proceed.

How Baha’i Voters Should Vote draws from the same material referenced by the Universal House of Justice—mainly, letters from Shoghi Effendi to various Spiritual Assemblies throughout the world—and makes the point that Shoghi Effendi’s instructions to the Baha’is, far from discouraging any discussion amongst electors prior to an election, encourages them to “get thoroughly acquainted with one another, to exchange views, to mix freely and discuss among themselves the requirements and qualifications for such a membership without reference or application, however indirect, to particular individuals.” It’s a fine line, but the essential element—the total lack of reference to personalities—is what makes Baha’i elections special. Arash identifies four general criteria that Baha’i voters should consider:

  1. Qualifications of individual Assembly members. Voters should consider individuals that possess the qualities of “unquestioned loyalty, of selfless devotion, of a well-trained mind, of recognized ability and mature experience.”
  2. The collective makeup of the Assembly as a whole. Voters should consider qualities that reflect the makeup of the Assembly as a whole, such as the diversity of its membership. For instance, they should keep in mind advice from the Universal House of Justice to consider age distribution and ethnic and gender diversity in the Assembly.
  3. Changes in the individual makeup of the Assembly. No matter how excellent selections from a prior year may have been, it is always important for the voters to be on the lookout for making improvements to the Spiritual Assembly. Shoghi Effendi reminds voters who notice shortcomings in members of the Assembly that the annual election gives “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.”
  4. Changes in the collective makeup of the Assembly over time. Shoghi Effendi also suggested that the collective quality of the Assembly should change and improve over time. Thus, beyond specific improvements in the individual makeup of the Assembly, there should be some turnover as well.

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