Which is better for your organization — competitive (contested) elections or non-competitive (uncontested) elections? If you want to spark a heated discussion, that’s the question to ask staff and consultants because the jury is definitely still out on this issue.
Many organizations have uncontested elections with ballots that offer one pre-selected candidate per office. This generally happens for a few reasons:
- Bylaws require it.
- Tradition prescribes it.
- The organization is unable to recruit enough qualified candidates.
However, some of our benchmark survey participants said uncontested elections decrease voter turnout:
- “We have almost entirely uncontested elections. Members say ‘why bother’ especially if they don’t personally know the candidates.”
- “Usually, my organization had candidates running unopposed. We always saw a spike in participation when there was competition.”
The benefits of competitive elections
Some membership organizations prefer competitive elections because:
- Voters feel they really do make a difference. They’re not rubber-stamping a decision made by a select few.
- Voters get to have a say in the direction and leadership of their organization. Often, voting for leadership is their only opportunity to have a voice.
- Competitive elections encourage higher levels of voter education and turnout.
Keith Seitter, executive director of the American Meteorological Society, says, “We usually have contested ballots. It’s part of the culture. There’s a strong sense within the community that members want ownership in leaders.”
Members of NASPA (formerly the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators) like “contested but not contentious elections,” says Brian Sponsler, Vice President for Research and Policy. “When multiple members are willing to say ‘I’d like to take a leadership role in the association,’ that’s a signal of health and a sign that members are invested in the association.”
The risks of competitive elections
However, on the other side of the argument, some believe the risks of competitive elections outweigh the benefits. In an interview with Bryan Kelly, marketing director at Aptify, Jeff De Cagna, FASAE, chief strategist and founder at Principled Innovation LLC, raised many of the points made by those in the association and nonprofit community who believe competitive elections are an obstacle to well-functioning boards:
- When board members feel more loyalty to the constituency that elected them rather than to the organization as a whole, their decisions may be based on what’s most politically expedient, rather than what’s best for the organization.
- Those who are elected to office are often politically popular, but not always the ones best equipped to serve in governing roles. A nominating committee is in the best position to select individuals who bring the necessary skills and qualifications to the organization and who meet other criteria, such as diversity and inclusion.
- With overt and/or subtle “camps” behind presidents or chairs, politics can overwhelm the ability of the organization to build a sustainable business model.
- Candidates shouldn’t be asked to spend their time, energy and, sometimes, money as they vie for votes.
- People who run for and lose elections are often soured or embarrassed by the experience.
How do organizations solve this conundrum? Is there a way to get the benefits of competitive elections, particularly higher voter turnout, without taking on the risks that De Cagna mentions? I behave there is, and I’ll share an approach with you next week.
In the meantime, I’d like to hear your take on the competitive election conundrum and whether they’re healthy or unhealthy for a membership organization. How do you minimize the risks of the approach — contested or uncontested — that your organization uses?