Many mid-sized and larger activist groups have elections during an annual general meeting to elect new members of their board or executive committee. When done right, elections bring in enthusiastic members with new ideas - but its important to know how to hold elections in a way that constructively builds on the organization’s work.
Elections within a group or organization are important for a variety of reasons. They ensure that the leaders of the group have the confidence of the member base. Elections are also a great chance for various issues and hot topics to be debated - and having most discussion around a single time of year ensures that the rest of the year can be dedicated to working hard. Elections also reinvigorate a lot of the vision within an organization, as new candidates propose new ideas that prompt fresh discussion and focus within the group. Elections are also a handy time for long-serving executive officers to ‘cycle’ out of leadership roles if they feel they’ve given all they can.
Set a date and format - everyone needs to be on the same page with election rules, so ensure the date, time, and format (in-person, online, etc) are publicly shared around, ideally with plenty of time for candidates to declare their intent and then campaign.
Set the requirements for candidates - are there requirements for candidates? Do candidates for the board have to have been with the organization for a certain length of time? Must candidates for president have been on the board before? If so, ensure that all candidates and potential candidates know!
Set the obligations for candidates - what do candidates have to do? Must they publish a manifesto? Is there a town hall for candidates? Must they collect signatures? Ensure that all candidates are aware of what's expected of them!
Allow campaigning, posters, etc - hopefully there’ll be a bit of buzz around elections - be sure that there’s enough time for candidates to spread their ideas. Format dependent, this might include putting up posters, setting up ‘campaign socials’, etc.
Set the voting procedure and format - ensure that all members know what the voting procedure will be. What is the voting procedure? Are absentee ballots allowed? What happens if there’s a tie? Is there weighting to votes? Ensuring everyone knows all the rules can prevent tension in a close election.
Voting and election procedures can take place in and around the time of the Annual General Meeting.
Ideally appoint a chair of the meeting - Have an impartial chair of the AGM. They should be someone senior who isn’t running for election - a former or outgoing chairperson or board member is often a good call
Have a rough schedule posted in advance - AGMs can often be intense, so it’s good to have a schedule in place to ensure that business is kept flowing.
Elections and election procedure often differ depending on the type of organization, member numbers, and expectations and traditions that an event has. There are a number of key questions which should be considered when planning an AGM and an election.
Zoom or in-person AGM and voting?
The answer to this generally depends on the geographical spread of the member base. If you’re a national organization, an AGM may be a larger event than one for a neighborhood group. If it's hard to get all interested individuals to agree on a time and place that is convenient for most, online AGM may be the way to go.
Online AGMs also cut down on the amount of time needed for travelling, etc, potentially giving you more time to get to the business of an election.
The question of online or physical AGM may also differ If it is tied to another event - if your group is hosting an event that all members will be in attendance at (such as an annual assembly or even a Christmas/holiday party) , it may be prudent to have the AGM around the same time.
Should there be anonymous questions?
While it might sound like a controversial idea, anonymous questions (generally assisted through use of a form) can be useful if its a small organization where there can also be interpersonal relations at play, and/or the potential for peer pressure or in-group fighting. Sometimes people are more comfortable asking tough but necessary questions to a friend or colleague when they know they won’t receive personal backlash for it.
On the flipside, people are often less considerate when they know there’s anonymity. As you might imagine, some people may take it too far under the cover of anonymity. This is something to judge yourself, depending on how people actually engage with such a format.
One of the benefits of anonymous questions is that any rude, unsightly, or below-the-belt questions can be removed by the chairperson of the AGM.
Elections are an event with a purpose - but there’s a few indicators that an election is acting as an asset
All roles have candidates - a healthy election has all of its positions contested at minimum, which ensures that there’s continuation between outgoing and incoming boards, and that the incoming board isn’t left to scramble to fill vacant positions. Ideally, each position will be contested by multiple candidates, which allows contrasting views of the role to be presented by the candidates, and to allow members to choose who best represents them.
Discourse is healthy and friendly - many people get very heated over elections within their organizations or groups, but its important that discussion remains constructive, and that competition is amicable - otherwise it can make things awkward for members forced to choose sides, and can contribute to election fatigue amongst the member base.
No confusion over process - there are no complaints over the nominations or obligations of candidates, the canvassing and voting procedures are clear, and the election timeline is unambiguous and adhered to. This is one which you can directly ask your member base their opinions and views on.
If these are not present, it may be time to take action. Thankfully, there’s ample opportunity to fix these before the next election takes place. If roles don’t have enough candidates, maybe begin encouraging members to run, or start the election procedures earlier in the calendar. If discourse is not healthy, perhaps its time to begin a bit of structured moderation.
Many of the above guides are tailored to organizations of above a certain size. However, elections can also happen in smaller groups, though in a slightly different format. Informal elections involve other, healthy democratic processes, and ensure
May be necessary when the organization is small or is still forming. If your organization has only a handful of members, or has only existed for a short period of time, you may want to choose board members, but holding a standard election might be a waste of valuable time or resources that could be spent further establishing the organization.
In an informal election, all members (or select members) sit down and negotiate priorities, new officers, etc in a less rigid and more informal fashion. Responsibilities and roles can be a bit more flexible and tailored to the individual. An informal election is still good practice as opposed to just solely appointing members. It sets the focus for the future where there can be formal elections, ensures that there’s sufficient planning for the year, and provides an opportunity for all members to be on a similar page with the goals of the organization.