Is the UUA Democratically Governed?

“Is the Unitarian Universalist Association democratically governed?” It is a reasonable question.

More than a decade after the 2009 Fifth Principle Task Force urged reforms to General Assembly, the institution continues to conduct the business of the Association in ways the report found clearly undemocratic. Consider, for example, that we do not have any collective memory of electing the UUA Board Trustees.

Although Jay’s candidacy was unsuccessful, his campaign objective to elevate the role of democracy in the governance of the Association succeeded. It was encouraging in this connection to see the defeat of the UUA Board’s proposal eliminating the only guaranteed election UUs have in the selection of our UUA president. However, our UU leadership’s overall response to Jay’s candidacy gives less cause for optimism.

At the June 25 plenary session of GA 2021, a board member stated, “Contrary to the lie we have heard repeated many times over the past few months, each of us was vetted by the Nominating Committee and then elected by the General Assembly.”

The last observation, to borrow from current public vernacular, is an alternative fact.

Article IX, Section 9.01, subsection (a) in the Association’s bylaws is clear. “Voting shall be by ballot, except that if only one person has been validly nominated for an elective position at large the persons so nominated shall be declared elected and no voting shall be required.” In other words, despite the vetting by the Nominating Committee, the candidates selected by the Nominating Committee are not elected. They are “declared elected.”

Election Results?

This year there was an election between Jay and Sam because Jay ran for the same seat that Sam was chosen for by the Nominating Committee. As in past years, the unopposed individuals selected by the Nominating were awarded their board seats simply due to their nomination.

Why then did a UUA Board Trustee deem it necessary to make a public statement that people identified by the Nominating Committee “had been elected by the General Assembly?” More importantly, why did a UUA Board Trustee publicly declare that assertions to the contrary are a “lie”? Not only is this statement of the Trustee an alternative fact, but it is also an exceedingly inappropriate and unbecoming thing to say.

This public announcement by a lone board member was not an isolated effort to leave the impression that our Association is democratically governed.

General Assembly ballot page 1
Section of GA 2021 Ballot

When delegates accessed their ballot for the election between Jay and Sam, their names were properly listed. Delegates could then cast a ballot for either candidate. However, also listed were the names of people identified by the Nominating Committee with a check box option to “vote” for the individual. Rule G-9.13.3 in the bylaws prohibits write-in votes.

Bear in mind, those votes for unopposed individuals carried no consequences. Whether they received every single delegate vote or not a single vote, they were going to assume their leadership position. Why were their names listed on the ballot?

We Ask the Board Secretary 

We posed that question to Bill Young, the UUA Board Secretary. Our inquiry referenced the bylaw noted above, concerns raised by a misleading ballot, and why individuals not involved in an electoral process were included in his announcement of election results. The reply consisted of three observations.

  • The “contested election” (all, please look up the definition of ‘contested election’) necessitated the creation of a ballot.
  • It is common practice to show candidates in uncontested elections on a ballot.
  • Yes, the bylaws indicated voting shall not be required, but it does not prohibit delegates from voting.

The response did not sway us from our initial observation that there was an intentional effort to obfuscate the fact that voting Trustees had not been democratically elected.  It raises questions why such steps were taken. What are your thoughts?

We welcome reader’s comments.

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Robin Bossert
Robin Bossert
3 months ago

Yes, I was appalled by the blatant misleading statement mentioned numerous times that the Board is “elected” by the delegates at GA. There is no such thing as a non-competitive election. Who’s lying? I would like to know what happened to the 5th Principle Project? How did it die? How can it be reborn?

Sally G.
Sally G.
3 months ago

I believe that it is proper to list uncontested candidates on a ballot, and I would change our bylaws to require a majority of positive votes for such an uncontested nominee to be seated. I realize that (1) it is almost a guarantee that such a nominee will easily get a majority and (2) that some will consider this a waste of resources. However, I believe that keeping the practice of voting alive is important, and that active affirmation of the Nominating Committee’s choices is something positive that we should require.

Sally G.
Sally G.
3 months ago

Another thought—I understand about board composition, the need for various skill sets, and designing a board to have the desired variety. I am less convinced of the damage caused by contested elections (politicians survive them all the time, and we really should not be trying to protect everyone from every possible harm), but even decidedly undemocratic public corporations send out with their annual report a paper ballot listing the slate of board nominees, and over the years have changed from “support all” and “withhold vote for _____” [fill in the name{s} of particular board members], to a line with “for/against/abstain”… Read more »

Last edited 3 months ago by Sally G.
William Dutkiewicz
William Dutkiewicz
3 months ago

The answer is clearly no. UU’s have a principal for democracy, they suggest it for others, but the reality is they do a terrible job of managing their internal affairs in a democratic way.

Robert South
Robert South
3 months ago

Maybe the results of GA really do reflect the will of the majority of UUs. Maybe it’s just that UUs are ninnies. And the more it’s true that UUism is ninny led, the more non-ninnies will leave, thus increasing the purity.

Hrc
Hrc
3 months ago
Reply to  Robert South

UU laity, including in congregational votes, tend to be rubber stampers. Most who approve an annual budget probably don’t even read it. UUs like to characterize themselves as open-minded, independent thinkers, but they are as much crowd-followers as any other religion.

So much of the issues are to be placed on the laity not just national leadership.

Paul Alan Thompson
Paul Alan Thompson
3 months ago
Reply to  Robert South

The plain fact is that a majority of UUs did not vote. Probably less than 1% of UUs voted. The vote of 87% of .5% is no indication of the vote of the larger body. In NO SENSE are those who attend GA representative of UUs as a whole, nor are they a random sample.

Lee
Lee
3 months ago

The UUA bylaws, even with the failed change at GA, do not prohibit contested elections. If you want contested elections, please run for office! That’s democracy. Thank you, Jay. Requiring that the nominating committee find two (or more) people for each slot makes the elections contested, but does not further democracy. If you fear that the nominating committee is currently selecting candidates that you wouldn’t want to support, what makes you think that they’ll starting picking candidates you like just because they have to pick more? Sam vs. Jay is democracy; Chris vs. Chris-clone is not a meaningful example of… Read more »

Lee
Lee
2 months ago
Reply to  WebMaster

I am in favor of proportional representation of the diversity of thought. I am having trouble seeing how making the Nominating Committee choose two candidates for some position, Chris vs. Chris-clone, will help with that. Instead, I advocate for easy ballot access to anyone who wishes to self nominate; that has the chance to get us diversity of thought!

Allan Lindrup
Allan Lindrup
3 months ago

My thoughts are along the line of those from Sally Gellert. We may not be able to guarantee that each election will be contested, but delegates should have the option to vote FOR/AGAINST/or ABSTAIN in connection with each candidate, with a candidate needing FOR votes to be at least 50% + 1 of all votes cast to be elected. Since the 5th Principle Project is looking for possible By-Law Amendments to propose through Business Resolutions, this is one that could be proposed. Sometimes an incumbent Congressperson does not face a challenger in the general election, due to the fact that… Read more »

Jack Reich
Jack Reich
2 months ago
Reply to  Allan Lindrup

I agree, Allan. Let’s get t work on a by-law amendment to adress these issues! :^J Jack

Stephen Caldwell
3 months ago

The blog post title asks the following question:

Is the UUA Democratically Governed?

The answer to this question is “yes.”

Are there any questions?

Frank Casper
Frank Casper
3 months ago

Not for you, evidently.

Stephen Caldwell
3 months ago
Reply to  Frank Casper

Frank — the current UUA bylaws that govern UUA elections and how we select leaders for the UUA Board and various UUA committees were created through a democratic process involving debate and voting.

Are you suggesting that we ignore the results of this democratic process?

Frank Casper
Frank Casper
3 months ago

I’m not suggesting we ignore anything. But your first reply to this thread suggests you are.

Daniel G.
Daniel G.
3 months ago

No, you’ve settled the issue once and for all!

Stephen Caldwell
3 months ago
Reply to  WebMaster

WebMaster asked: All UUs want to believe that our leadership is living into our Fifth Principle.  The evidence before us, however, does not support that belief.  Please share why you think the Association is democratically governed.  General Assembly is a representative democracy where congregational delegates decide how we govern ourselves at the associational level. Over the years, our delegates have decided to restructure how we select our elected leaders. Our delegates decide that the UUA Nominating Committee is their preferred pathway for selecting UUA Board members and most UUA Board elections are uncontested. These delegates still have provided a way for those… Read more »

Frank Casper
Frank Casper
3 months ago

Your entire post completely ignores and even contradicts the findings of the 2009 Fifth Principle Task Force. You rely heavily on the votes of GA delegates over time, but all you have to do is read the executive summary of that report to see that the whole delegate process is precisely the point of weakness the report repeatedly emphasizes.

Stephen Caldwell
3 months ago
Reply to  Frank Casper

Frank — an imperfect democracy is still a democracy. And the imperfect democracy that we have today is the pathway for any future changes and reforms. Whatever the Fifth Principle Project wants to do is going to have to go through General Assembly through the bylaws amendment process. There is no other pathway for you to make changes. And your reply assumes that nothing has changed since the 2009 Fifth Principle Task Force report. In 2011, General Assembly had virtual delegates participating and voting just like the on-site delegates. And this online participation continued from 2011 to today. For 2020… Read more »

Frank Casper
Frank Casper
3 months ago

First. if the writers of the 2009 report had your attitude at the time, they could have said that an imperfect democracy is still a democracy and called it a day. Second, the members of the Fifth Principle Project know perfectly well what we will need to do in order to make the changes we seek. That is why the Fifth Principle Project has sought to appeal to the entire membership of the denomination in order to build support for our goals. This is distinct from leaderships implementation of policy governance, which allows them to make policy changes that do… Read more »

Stephen Caldwell
2 months ago
Reply to  Frank Casper

Frank Casper wrote: -snip- Fourth, I’ve not a clue as to what you mean by us having cherry-picked recommendations from the 2008 (sic) report. Since you didn’t offer any details, yours is just another unsubstantiated accusation. The 2009 report recommended reducing the number of GA delegates from the theoretical maximum of approximately 5100 delegates to 1900-2100 delegates (see page 7 and 8 of the 2009 report). An earlier comment on the original post from a prominent gadfly / 5PP supporter criticized GA body because it was too small in number: “The plain fact is that a majority of UUs did… Read more »

Jay Kiskel
Jay Kiskel
2 months ago

Stephen, you appear to be relying on delegate voting at General Assembly to support your claim that the Association is democratically governed.   “Since these bylaws decisions were decided by debating and voting in a democratic process, these decision (sic) are an example of democratic governance in action.” We ask you to read (maybe re-read) the 2009 Fifth Principle Task Force Report. That report critically observed that General Assembly is “dramatically broken.”  The report continued, “The future of our UU movement can ill-afford to continue the ways of faux democracy and unaccountable representation that have characterized Associational governance, including the content and… Read more »

Stephen Caldwell
2 months ago
Reply to  Jay Kiskel

Jay Kiskel wrote: -snip- . . . you appear to be relying on delegate voting at General Assembly to support your claim that the Association is democratically governed. Jay . . . you’re claiming that decisions made at General Assembly are not done democratically. That suggests an interesting dilemma. If you had won your election for the UUA Board, it would not have been through a democratic process by your reckoning This is based on your claims and the claims of other 5PP supporters in this thread who claim UUA governance isn’t a democratic process. Using the 5PP complaints aired… Read more »

Frank Casper
Frank Casper
2 months ago

So, you’re logic is, that since Jay embraces the 5th Principle Task Force Report, which explicitly describes the GA as undemocratic, that had he won his election he would have been elected undemocratically? You’re saying that his response to that report, which was as much to promote and advance democracy as it was to win a seat on the board, was undemocratic because his seat would have been acquired within a process that is otherwise undemocratic according to the UUA’s own report? Is that what you’re saying? If so, then your post is a testimony to the extent to which… Read more »

Karen
Karen
2 months ago
Reply to  Jay Kiskel

Thank you Stephen, this is valuable information as I try to understand all this. I will be reading more about this.

Jay Kiskel, nice to see you in the conversation. There were General Assembly delegates hoping you would respond to questions raised on your page here about your candidacy. I realize you lost the election, however I am still interested in your responses.

David Markha,m
3 months ago

It could be that democracy, whatever we mean by the term, could be overrated when it comes to a religious organization. In our post truth error where “alternative facts” seems to be the game that those who want power and to stay in power play, we are left with no compass to guide the journey. It may be that religious Truth is not democratic and can’t be legislated by the “winning” representatives. Some mystics teach that spiritual truth is all encompassing and eternal and is manifested in many forms. UUs affirm and promote the free and responsible search for this… Read more »

Frank Casper
Admin
Frank Casper
3 months ago
Reply to  David Markha,m

As I understand it, UUism follows Lock and the rest of the Enlightenment tradition when it comes to religion, that it is a matter of conscience and cannot in any way be forced. This at least partly emerged from centuries of the dominant religious institutions demonstrating by dint of war this simple truth, to the point that by the time of our country’s founding, religious toleration was desired even by many if not most of the churches. Democracy and the right of conscience are joined at the hip in that democracy is widely regarded as the only form of government… Read more »

Hrc
Hrc
3 months ago
Reply to  David Markha,m

The UUA is supposed to be a service organization supporting independent congregations. It’s not supposed to be a government.

Obviously, delegates, how trustees are picked etc are important, but also important is to remember what it is.

Last edited 3 months ago by Hrc
Sharon
Sharon
2 months ago
Reply to  David Markha,m

wow. . . and this is how democracy dies

Jack Reich
Jack Reich
2 months ago

Stephen Caldwell is a ubiquitous troll who does not seem interested n making anything in the UUA work better. His purpose in these discussions is observably to start fights, prove you’re wrong, and just generally cause chaos and confusion. I suggest he be banned from here forthwith.

Karen
Karen
2 months ago
Reply to  Jack Reich

Huh? I think I have reviewed most discussions here and don’t see what you’re seeing. Do people get banned from this site? What are people not allowed to discuss, if that’s what you mean?

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