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Robert's Rules in Real Life

Kicking the president out of the room

Monday, September 01, 2014

I’ve been studying parliamentary procedure for fourteen years now, and have long considered that my background as a diplomat is a great asset on the job. Earlier this year, however, I really blew it.

When and how should you kick the president out of the room?

One winter afternoon I was serving as parliamentarian to an organization voting on whether to merge with another, similar organization. The members had gathered in a “special membership meeting,” the proposal was presented, ballots had been cast, and it was time to count them.

The members serving as volunteer tellers were new to the job, so I explained the procedure and they started tallying the votes. In the midst of our work, the president wandered into the room and came up to our table, saying, “I sure hope we’re coming out in favor on this!”

An ideal and diplomatic response would have been to rise from my seat, take the president by the arm, and escort him out, explaining gently that it is essential for the tellers to do their work in complete isolation. Unfortunately I was quite tired that day, and my responses were not at their sharpest. Instead of tactfully explaining the situation, I turned in my chair and shrieked, “You can’t be here! Go away!”

I offer this story to show that even with years of training and background experience, all of us are fallible and can react poorly under the pressure of the moment. This genial president assured me afterwards that he was not offended. I was grateful that he accepted my apology, and also puzzled as to why I had behaved so badly.

The reason, I think, is that the counting of ballots truly is a sacred trust. Even when the matter at hand is small in scale, it must be conducted properly, without the hint or possibility of any political interference. As Elias Canetti said, we have ballots so that we will not have blood.

My conclusion: It was correct to kick the president out of the room. However, it’s better to set things up ahead of time so that everyone understands the requirements, and you aren’t surprised into behaving as undiplomatically as I did!

Do you have stories to tell about elections and voting? We are always glad to hear from our readers…

Ann G. Macfarlane, Professional Registered Parliamentarian

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