In a global procession, ballots are cast for the Universal House of Justice

April 29, 2008
Delegates representing the Baha'is of the world cast their ballots for the nine members of the Universal House of Justice. The voting took place at the International Baha'i Convention in Haifa on 29 April.

HAIFA, Israel — In a ceremony that combined spiritual dignity with global diversity, a thousand Bahá’ís from 153 countries cast ballots today in an election to choose the nine members of the Universal House of Justice, the international governing body of the Bahá’í Faith.

For nearly three hours, delegates to the 10th International Bahá’í Convention filed decorously, one by one, onto a majestically adorned stage, each dropping a ballot into a simple wooden box.

The votes will be tallied overnight and the results announced here tomorrow.

The event was a study in globalism, a hallmark of the Bahá’í Faith, which has some five million followers and is established in virtually every nation.

Delegates were called by name, in alphabetical order by country. Many proudly wore traditional or native dress, an acknowledgment of their belief in the concept of unity in diversity.

The result was colorful and joyous, as women in bright ethnic dresses or simple pantsuits mixed with men in Western business suits or gaily decorated tribal costumes.

The balloting process began with prayers, followed by brief remarks from Penny Walker, chairman of the convention.

“We gather together here with hearts full of excitement at the achievements of the Bahá’í world in the last year, and with hearts full of gratitude to Bahá’u’lláh for making it possible that this extraordinary assembly of His followers, from every corner of the earth, could come together in the Holy Land, to elect the Universal House of Justice, the supreme body of our Faith,” said Dr. Walker.

Dr. Walker, who holds the position of International Counsellor in the Bahá’í Faith, outlined the voting procedure, in which the delegates write down the names of nine men they feel are most qualified to serve on the Universal House of Justice.

“As you know, the Bahá’í electoral process is finally spiritual in character, a unique feature of our divinely ordained administration,” she said. “Let us remember the words of Shoghi Effendi, which urged us to approach this task of election with selflessness and detachment, … ‘with a purity of motive, a freedom of spirit and a sanctity of heart.’”

The delegates to the convention are the members of the Bahá’í National Spiritual Assemblies of the world, who were themselves elected by delegates chosen at the grassroots level in their own countries. Thus virtually every adult Bahá’í in the world had the opportunity to participate in the election of their supreme body, an event that occurs every five years.

About 500 of the 1494 delegates could not be present for voting, for personal or other reasons. Those who could not attend sent ballots by mail, and there were numerous pauses in the procession as tellers brought forward absentee ballots, removed an identifying outer envelope, and dropped the inner contents into the ballot box.

Members of 166 National Spiritual Assemblies submitted ballots, with 153 countries represented in person at the convention. Delegates from Canada are pictured here. Slideshow
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Members of 166 National Spiritual Assemblies submitted ballots, with 153 countries represented in person at the convention. Delegates from Canada are pictured here.

In the case of Iran, where 300,000 Bahá’ís face intense persecution and Bahá’í administration has been outlawed, the absence of delegates was noted by the placement of 95 red roses at the front of the stage and the reading of a message from Iranian Bahá’ís.

“Even though circumstances deprive us of the bounty of attending this luminous gathering, we are nonetheless with you in spirit, and present to you this bouquet of flowers as a token of our love and affection,” the message said.

The nature of Bahá’í elections

Today’s balloting reflected a unique election process that emphasizes qualifications over promises, and inclusiveness over money or other barriers to office.

There are no parties or platforms, all forms of campaigning are strictly avoided, and no nominations are made. Rather, after prayer and reflection, each delegate simply writes down the names of nine individuals who he or she feels are best qualified to serve.

These instructions are followed in all Bahá’í elections, guided by the statement in the Bahá’í writings that electors should vote for people who posses qualities “of selfless devotion, of a well-trained mind, of recognized ability and mature experience.”

At the local and national levels, any adult Bahá’í is eligible for election. For the Universal House of Justice, any adult male Bahá’í from anywhere in the world is eligible for election. Membership is limited to men because of a specific stipulation in the Bahá’í sacred writings, the wisdom of which will become clear in the future.

While some observers have asked how it is possible to manage an election without parties, campaigning or nominations, Bahá’ís believe their system helps protect against divisiveness and such things as vote-mongering, campaign debts, or factionalism.

“Because there is no nomination process -- there are no ‘candidates’ per se -- and therefore no campaign,” said Susanne Tamas, a delegate from Canada.

“As a result, there is no opportunity for individuals to be encouraging others to vote for them, whether by magnifying their own qualities or finding fault with other candidates.

“Underlying this whole process is reliance on prayer and efforts of the delegates to keep themselves informed of the activities of the Bahá’í community worldwide,” she said.

Ballot integrity

During the voting, a number of procedures were taken to ensure the integrity of the balloting process – some of which were visible and others less so.

Foremost, the current Universal House of Justice was seated as a body, front and center, as obvious observers to the process.

Then, as vote casting began, the ballot box was tipped towards the assembled delegates, to show that it was empty. And when the voting was completed, it was sealed with tape bearing the signature of the chief teller, Thelma Khelghati, a delegate from Guinea.

Ms. Khelghati was assisted by three other tellers on stage, who carefully checked voters and absentee ballots against a master list of delegates and observed to be sure that ballots were carefully placed in the box.

There were 19 tellers plus the chief head teller and an assistant, and the names of all were announced. They had been selected by the Universal House of Justice, receiving notification of their role upon arrival in Haifa.

“The tellers come from all parts of the world, from different backgrounds, so they are there to witness and vouch for the process,” said Baharieh Rouhani Ma’ani, the ballot officer for the convention.

This year, delegates from Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, France, Guinea, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Jamaica, the Marshall Islands, Papua New Guinea, Singapore, Taiwan, Turkey, Uganda, the United Kingdom, the United States, Vanuatu, and Zambia were selected as tellers.

The tellers will be sequestered in a counting room at the Seat of the Universal House of Justice until the ballots are counted and cross-checked, a process that in some past years has taken well beyond midnight.

“The electoral process actually began last year, with the election of the National Spiritual Assemblies, … when the process of verifying those names began,” said Ms. Ma’ani. Members of those national councils serve as delegates to the International Convention.

“Then, when the ballots come in by mail, every name is checked against a database to be sure that the person sending the ballot is indeed a member of the National Spiritual Assembly,” she said.

The ballots themselves are sheets of paper printed with blank rectangular fields for nine names (and another field for the country or other identifying term as may be needed). The ballots are perforated between each name, and once in the counting room, the tellers separate each ballot into nine strips, yielding more than 13,000 individual votes.

The tellers work in teams of two, said Ms. Ma’ani, under the supervision of the head tellers, cross checking and then sorting the paper strips into a series of alphabetized boxes to complete the tally.

“The process is completely manual,” said Ms. Ma’ani. “There is no doubt.”

No one leaves until the counting is done. Meals, as necessary, are brought in once the ballot box is unsealed. When finished, the tellers all sign the results and they are presented to the Universal House of Justice for approval.