Robert's Rules of Order is a set of rules defining a method of parliamentary procedure. It is used to structure and organize meetings of people by providing a set of consistent rules. These rules decribe the proper methods of, for example:
  • Presenting a motion (a proposal for the group's consideration)
  • Handling debates over motions
  • Choosing leaders
  • Voting by members
  • Deciding whether to continue debating a motion or to 'table' it - i.e. drop it for the moment
  • Behavior in the meeting for all concerned

...and many more. Where did they come from? Apparently a U.S. Army officer named Henry Robert attempted, with no prior experience, to run a church meeting. The resulting debacle so embarrassed him it prompted him to embark on research of proper parliamentary procedure as he moved about the United States in his Army career. His guide was originally published in the latter part of the nineteenth century; To this day, continually updated versions of Robert's Rules can be bought. The present 'official' version is titled Robert's Rules of Order Newly Revised. The organization that produces it can be found at http://www.robertsrules.com.

The U.S. Senate has its own set of rules, which are known as 'Senate Rules.' These can be found on the senate home page at http://www.senate.gov.

Over almost a year of attendance at many twelve-step meetings in several twelve-step fellowships, I have noticed that many don't have a formal procedure for passing motions, or follow a modified version of Robert's Rules of Order which forces the secretary to know and enforce all the rules single-handedly. Accordingly, I have tried here to research and explain the different motions and procedures involved in Robert's Rules; I have twelve-step meetings in mind, but these rules can be applied anywhere that the members agree to embrace them.

The great, difficult crux of business meetings is the process of changing things. All too often, change is effected by the "grunt method." One member wishes to skip some tedious part of the meeting, and suggests it informally; three or four others agree with vague grunts; and the dizzied secretary or chairperson, unsure what the rules are around this, goes ahead with what seems to be group consensus. Meanwhile, the majority of the members did not get a chance to voice their opinion and are silently seething with rage, but don't know how to raise their issue and stay silent instead.

In twelve-step groups, at least the ones I've attended, this happens most often outside of business meetings. During the regular meeting time, people sometimes seem to be less sure of how to propose a change in the schedule or whether to ask about closing the window, possibly because there seems to be less structure. In fact, the same rules hold for either situation. Let's look at them now.

The Decision-Making Process

In order to propose a change in the current meeting or introduce a new idea to a group, someone must make a motion. Basically, that process is as follows:

    1. A member stands up or raises their hand, is recognized, and states their motion.
    2. Another member seconds it (OR, nobody seconds it and the motion is automatically dropped).
    3. The "presiding officer" (whoever is running the meeting) restates the motion without rewording it.
    4. The motion is thrown open for discussion;
    5. The presiding officer calls the vote with "All in favor say aye," or "stand up," or "raise your hand," and then asks for all against and all abstaining, counts the votes, and announces the result.

When the rules are not followed, motions and discussion tend to look like this:

Member 1: Um, I noticed that we don't have a basket for collecting donations and there are all these baskets downstairs and we can use them, so maybe we should?
Secretary: Oh, uh, that's okay with me. Any discussion?
Member 2: (raises hand) I think we're okay the way we are, just borrowing another meeting's basket each time.
Member 3: But the traditions say we're supposed to be self-supporting. Isn't that not being self-supporting?
Member 4: (saucily) I think it's pretty self-supporting of us.
Member 1: Well, I was just wondering.
Secretary: Okay.... (looks around for another motion)

How many violations of the rules of order can you find in that exchange? There are at least six. Million.

Here's how it should go:

Member 1: (raises hand)
Secretary: Yes, Member 1?
Member 1: Um, I noticed that we don't have a basket for collecting donations and there are all these baskets downstairs and we can use them, so I'd like to make a motion that we get a volunteer to go downstairs and get a basket.
Member 9: I'll second the motion.
Secretary: Okay, the motion is that we ask for a volunteer to go downstairs and get a basket for collecting the meeting's dues. Any discussion?
Member 2: I think we're okay the way we are, just borrowing another meeting's basket each time.
Member 3: But the traditions say we're supposed to be self-supporting. Isn't that not being self-supporting?
Member 1: Yeah, and I don't feel comfortable moving their baskets around without asking. They don't always get put back in the same place, and we don't know if they might have a problem with it for some reason.
Secretary: Any more discussion? Okay, all in favor? (counts hands) All opposed? (counts hands) Abstaining? (counts hands) Motion passed. Do we have any volunteers to go get a basket?

Modifying a Motion

The beauty of making a motion is that it doesn't have to be perfect: anyone can suggest any change, secure in the knowledge that if it's stepping on someone's toes or stirring up trouble, another member will bring that up during discussion. The trick, often, is to learn to let go of the motion and not take modifications or votes against it personally. This is outside of our scope here: instead, we'll discuss how a motion can be modified.

The correct time to suggest a modification to a motion is before the floor is thrown open to discussion. That is:

    1. A member raises their hand, is recognized by the presiding officer, and states their motion. (For example: "I'd like to move that we add something to the meeting script reminding the secretary to read the cross-talk statement.")
    2. Potentially, another member can offer a modification here -- as in, "Can I suggest that the motion specify what the wording will be?" or "Can I respectfully modify your motion to add that we need to get a copy of the cross-talk statement?" The original member can either accept and restate their motion, or decline the changes.
    3. Another member seconds the motion.
    4. The presiding officer re-states the motion and throws it open for discussion.
    5. Alternately, suggestions and amendments can be offered after the second, and still before it is re-stated and offered up for discussion.
Once the motion is up for discussion, it belongs to the meeting at large -- which means, essentially, that if the person who originally made the motion wants to change it, they now also have to ask for unanimous consent from everyone there.

A third way that modifications can take place also comes up during the discussion phase: any member can propose an amendment to the motion. These act as a sort of mini-motion: they have to be seconded, and they can be amended and/or debated themselves.

If discussion has snowballed or devolved into chaos, anyone may move to refer the main motion to a committee. If that motion to refer is seconded and passed, the presiding officer then asks for volunteers to form a committee to look into the matter and the motion is tabled until the committee returns the motion to the assembly, usually with proposed amendments.

There is one last way to change a motion: the third kind of change that may take place during discussion. If a motion is, or has become, too complicated for the meeting to process, (for example, if it has grown to encompass several people's suggestions, seemingly unrelated ideas, or if debate around it has become impaled on the many prongs of the matter at hand), a member can urge its rejection (NOT move to reject it) and offer to propose a simpler substitute motion upon this motion's defeat.

That is, a member can say, "Oh my god, this is too much. I think the only way to do justice to Member 4's suggestion is to scrap this and have someone just propose one sentence to add to the script, and we can vote on all the rest of this stuff we've been discussing later." Whereupon the presiding officer might call for the vote, the members might oblige by voting the current motion down, and Member 4 (or anyone else) can propose a substitute motion.

Everyday Matters

That's the bulk of what happens at a business meeting. But what about all the everyday moments when the fan is too cold, or the meeting across the hall is too loud, or the speaker has gone too long and a member wants to skip part of the usual schedule to save time?

Basically, it's the same process. Except that here we have the chance to look at some of the motions we can make that don't require the help of the presiding officer.

These are the motions that don't require recognition by the chair, all but one of which don't require a second by another member:

  • Question of Privilege:: "I'd like to raise a question of privilege. I can't hear the speaker; can we turn the fan off?"
  • Orders of the Day: "I'd like to call for the orders of the day. The business meeting is only supposed to go till 9:30, and it's 9:45."
  • Point of Order: "Point of order -- we can't have the conference on the 27th, because Narcotics Anonymous is having one that day and our traditions say we have to cooperate with other 12 step groups." The presiding officer is in charge of ruling on the point.
  • Point of Information: (Also sometimes called parliamentary inquiry.) The purpose of a point of information is to find out what the consequences of a vote may be, or what the process involved is. For example, "Point of information: if we make this change to the script, who is in charge of typing it up? Do we have someone who does that?" Or, "Point of information: What's the process after someone suggests an amendment to my motion?"
  • Division of Assembly: This is for meetings where votes are counted by yelling, whether aye/nay, yes/no, or some other contest of the vocal cords. If a member doubts their presiding officer's ability to count the number of simultaneously shouted words, they can call for a division of assembly and the vote must be retaken in another manner.
The first two are called "privileged motions;" the latter five are called "informational motions;" both of these are forms of incidental motions." All they require is one of the statements above: there is no vote, they are automatically passed. If another member finds that she is too hot with the fan off, she may make a motion for an alternative compromise; if a meeting has gone over and no one has called the orders of the day, someone may make a motion to extend the meeting for a set number of minutes. But any of these incidental motions is automatically respected.

  • Appeal: Does require someone to second the motion. In any case where the presiding officer has made a decision, and the meeting has not yet moved on to other business, a member may call for an appeal. For example: "I'd like to appeal that decision: I don't think we actually need a division of assembly, since nobody voted against the motion."

Appeal is the only incidental motion that requires someone to second it; it can also be debated. The motions that can't be debated are:

  • Recess: If a motion is on the table, Recess is a privileged motion -- that is, a member can interrupt business and ask for a break right then and there. If there is nothing else on the table, this is proposed like any other motion. "I'd like to call for a twenty-minute recess." All in favor?
  • Orders of the Day: As above.
  • Division of the Assembly: As above.
  • Lay on the Table: "I'd like to table this motion until next meeting so I can get more information about it." This can only be applied to a motion that is currently being discussed, not (for example) to the rest of the meeting, the treasurer's report, or the report of a committee. The meeting then votes on whether to table it. A motion to table a given item under discussion can only be made once in a meeting unless something urgent comes up (such as the end of the meeting) or a lot of progress has been made in the discussion since the first motion to table was made.

    If a motion to table includes a time -- for example, "Let's table this until 2:15," -- then it is a Motion to Postpone, which can be debated.

  • Division of a Question: This can be made at any time after the motion is first stated by a member. It means that the presiding officer re-states the motion, divided into parts, and each part is voted on separately. For example:
    Member 4: I'd like to move that we create a new service position for making flyers and that they should advertise all the meetings in the area and our upcoming conference.
    Member 2: I'd like to call for the division of the question.
    Member 6, acting as the secretary and presiding officer that day: All right. First we'll vote on a new service position for making flyers, and then on whether they should advertise all the meetings in the area, and then on whether they should advertise the upcoming conference. Are there any seconds on the motion as a whole?
    Member 7: Second.
    (Member 6 then calls for a discussion and vote on each of the parts of the motion separately. The general assembly votes against advertising the conference, but for the creation of a new service position and for advertising all local meetings on their flyers. The vote on the motion itself is then called; it passes, and the approved parts of the motion are put into place.)
  • Suspend the Rules: This can apply to any rule, and requires a two-thirds vote to pass. A member can, for example, say, "I move that we suspend the rule about keeping the door closed, because it is very, very hot." This motion is not debatable or amendable, and requires a second.
  • Reconsider a Motion: If a motion is rejected by a close vote -- for example, if it needed a 2/3 vote and only got 55% voting yes -- a member can say, "I'd like to take a motion to reconsider this at the next meeting." The presiding officer then calls for the vote; if it passes by a simple majority, the motion can be put back on the table at the next meeting.
  • Dispense with Reading of the Minutes: In a meeting that regularly reads and votes to approve the previous meeting's minutes, a member can "move to dispense with the reading of the minutes" in order to save time. This requires a second and a majority vote.
  • Adjourn: If there is a future meeting, this is a privileged motion -- that is, it does not require debate. In a situation where there are no future meetings and adjourning would end the discussion permanently, a motion to adjourn can be debated or amended. A member may say "I move that we adjourn," and the presiding officer must then call for a vote.
  • Objection to the Consideration of the Question: This must take place before any debate begins. It does not need to be seconded, and has to be voted upon. Like so:
    Member 3: I'd like to move that we not allow anyone under 16 at this meeting.
    Member 8: I object to the consideration of the question.
    Member 6: The consideration of the question has been objected to. Shall we consider it?
    (Everyone votes; if 2/3 or more of the assembly votes no, the "question" is not "considered" and the motion is dropped. Otherwise, the process of considering the motion continues normally, in this case with a call for a second.)
  • Previous Question (Close Debate): This motion calls for an immediate vote on whatever motion is on the table and has the effect that the meeting is closed immediately afterward. A member may say, "I'd like to call the previous question," and the presiding officer calls for a vote; if the majority vote is in the negative, discussion on the current matter continues normally.
  • Limit or Extend Limits of Debate: A member can move to change the time involved in a debate with a statement like, "I move to limit debate to three speakers;" the motion is passed or defeated by a 2/3 vote.
  • Recess: As above.
  • Point of Information: As above.
  • Point of Order: As above.
  • Raise a Question of Privilege: As above.
  • Appeal: As above.

References:

  • The National Society of Black Engineers' explanation of the six steps involved in making a main motion: www.nsbe.org/region2/communications/downloads/rlc/SixSteps.doc
  • The Parliamentary Rules of Order, with great color-coding and tables to indicate what each kind of motion requires - from the Student Academy of the Academic Academy of Physician Assistants: http://saaapa.aapa.org/hottopics/Sturgis/parliamentary_inq.htm
  • A hyperlinked, online copy of the 1915 edition of Robert's Rules of Order: http://www.constitution.org/rror/rror--00.htm
  • The official Robert's Rules of Order website, with books and history: http://www.robertsrules.com
  • C.S.U. Ohio's Physics Club examines an abridged list of Robert's Rules, with excellent explanations and examples: http://www.csuohio.edu/physics/SPS/robsrluz.html
  • Parliamentary Procedure online's list of Precedence of Motions: http://www.parlipro.org/precedencelist.htm
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