This coming Sunday, the Bahá’ís of North-East England will be voting for delegates to attend next year’s National Convention, where they will place votes for the membership of the National Spiritual Assembly. This is a short reflection on how Bahá’ís vote.
There are four elected institutions in the Bahá’í Faith, throughout the world there are Local Spiritual Assemblies and National Spiritual Assemblies, at the international level there is the Universal House of Justice, and in many countries – including the countries of the United Kingdom – there are regional Bahá’í Councils.
Bahá’ís do not have priests or a clergy, there are no individuals with the power to interpret authoritatively what the Bahá’í Faith teaches. Institutions are granted certain responsibilities by unanimous vote, but the members of those institutions hold no special status within the Faith. Bahá’ís are encouraged to read for themselves and to consult. In the event that a disagreement exists which cannot be resolved in this manner they can seek clarification from the Universal House of Justice, but the Universal House of Justice cannot change any law that has been revealed by Bahá’u’lláh, they can only make – and repeal – laws that are not already clarified by Bahá’u’lláh, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá or Shoghi Effendi.
In His Will and Testament, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote:
“Unto the Most Holy Book every one must turn, and all that is not expressly recorded therein must be referred to the Universal House of Justice. That which this body, whether unanimously or by a majority doth carry, that is verily the truth and the purpose of God Himself. Whoso doth deviate therefrom is verily of them that love discord, hath shown forth malice, and turned away from the Lord of the Covenant. By this House is meant that Universal House of Justice which is to be elected from all countries, that is from those parts in the East and West where the loved ones are to be found, after the manner of the customary elections in Western countries such as those of England.”
And so it is that every Bahá’í in the world has the sacred duty to participate in the electoral process for the Spiritual Assemblies that administer to the needs of the Bahá’í Faith in their locality, and for the Universal House of Justice. The election of the Regional Bahá’í Council’s does not include – even indirectly – every Bahá’í within their area of responsibility, but each Regional Council operates under the direction of their National Spiritual Assembly.
While the elections of England are held up as an example for their all-inclusive nature, there are some key differences between Bahá’í elections – and Bahá’í institutions – and the natures of elections and institutions that are more familiar in the West. These unique features are similar for all of the Bahá’í elections and institutions, and I will come to them in a moment, but first I will give a brief outline of when and how the elections take place.
In every city, town or village where there are nine or more Bahá’ís at the time of the First Day of Ridván (around April 21st), an election is held at which it is the sacred duty of every one of those Bahá’ís to vote for exactly nine individuals to serve on the Local Spiritual Assembly.
Once a year, the members of each Local Spiritual Assembly vote for the members of their Regional Bahá’í Council (if they have one).
The first stage in the election of the National Spiritual Assembly is an annual local meeting called a Unit Convention, at which Bahá’ís of the area gather to consult and to elect delegates for a National Convention. In the UK a total of 95 delegates will be elected for National Convention, until recently the UK had 95 Unit Conventions, each unit being a geographical area in which approximately 1/95 of the UK Bahá’ís were resident. A few years ago the unit boundaries were changed to match the regional Clusters across which Bahá’ís were already working together, and each of these (generally larger) units is assigned a number of delegates to elect at their convention, representative of how many 95ths of the Bahá’í community are resident there. In North-East England we will be electing two delegates this Sunday, so every member of the Unit has a duty to vote for those two delegates. This can either be done in person, at the Convention, or by post.
The National Convention usually takes place during the twelve days of Ridván (around April 21st to May 2nd) but is later if there is an International Convention that year. At National Convention, the 95 delegates – elected at the Unit Conventions – all cast nine votes for the nine members of the National Spiritual Assembly, and consult on the affairs of the national Bahá’í community. As with the Unit Conventions, delegates who are unable to attend National Convention may send their votes by post.
Every five years, at the Bahá’í World Centre in Israel, an International Convention is held at which all nine members of each National Spiritual Assembly are asked to vote for the nine members of the Universal House of Justice, the international governing body of the Bahá’í Faith. At the last International Convention, in 2013, delegates from 157 countries cast their votes. The next International Convention is in 2018, therefore the individuals who were elected to National Spiritual Assemblies this year will be invited to attend International Convention from April 29th to May 2nd.
Bahá’ís do not put themselves forward for election to Bahá’í institutions. We are not permitted to campaign, or canvass, or to otherwise attempt to influence other people’s opinions when voting. Therefore, to quote a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi:
“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 of his fellow-believers, to keep in touch with 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. It is only in this way that a believer can develop a true social consciousness, and acquire a true sense of responsibility in matters affecting the interests of the Cause. Bahá’í community life thus makes it a duty for every loyal land faithful believer to become an intelligent, well-informed and responsible elector, and also gives him the opportunity of raising himself to such a station.”
Ideally, the elector will be aware of the functions of the institution they are voting for, and of several community members they consider qualified to serve. In such circumstances, other factors can also be considered. The Universal House of Justice has written:
“With a heightened awareness of the functions to be performed by the elected body, the believer can properly assess those for whom a vote should be cast. From among the pool of those whom the elector believes to be qualified to serve, selection should be made with due consideration given to such other factors as age distribution, diversity, and gender. The elector should make his choice after careful thought over an extended period before the actual election.”
All votes are by secret ballot and, when it comes to the actual voting, the Universal House of Justice has further written:
“When called upon to vote in a Bahá’í election, believers should be aware that they are carrying out a sacred task unique to this Dispensation. They should approach this duty in a prayerful attitude, seeking divine guidance and confirmation. As Shoghi Effendi has advised, ‘they must turn completely to God, and with a purity of motive, a freedom of spirit and a sanctity of heart, participate in the elections.'”
In letters written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi we also read:
“…the friends must whole-heartedly participate in the elections, in unity and amity, turning their hearts to God, detached from all things but Him, seeking His guidance and supplicating His aid and bounty.”
“… in the time of election, the friends should be in the mood of prayer, disinterestedness and detachment from worldly motives. Then they will be inspired to elect the proper members to the assemblies.”
So it is that, for Bahá’ís, the process of electing our institutions is a spiritual and sacred duty, and being elected to serve is not an endorsement of our personalities but, rather, the result of a prayerful process which breeds unity within the community.