A New Approach to Governance – Baha’i Unit Convention Held in Portland

Roger Nesbit speaks at Baha'i Unit Convention

Roger Nesbit speaks at Baha'i Unit Convention

Nearly 100 Bahá’ís from Portland and across Multnomah County came together in the afternoon on Sunday, October 4 at the Portland Bahá’í Center in North Portland for an annual meeting. At this meeting, local Bahá’ís had the opportunity to visit, pray and consult about the affairs of their community including the intensive plans of growth in their communities. The main purpose of the convention was to elect a delegate to the National Bahá’í Convention which will be held in April 2010. At that time, the delegate from Portland will join 170 other delegates from across the continental United States to deliberate on the affairs of the national community and carry out their sacred duty in electing the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States.

As the Baha’i Faith has no clergy, the National Spiritual Assembly — and assemblies elected at the local, regional and international levels — are charged, according to Baha’i Writings, with the responsibility of being “channels of divine guidance, planners of the teaching work, developers of human resources, builders of communities, and loving shepherds of the multitudes.”

The Universal House of Justice, the supreme elected body that leads the Bahá’í community worldwide states that people everywhere are yearning for institutions that will “dispense justice, dispel oppression and foster an enduring unity between the disparate elements of society.”

To those who equate elections with hard-ball partisan politics, the Baha’i Faith’s system of spiritual administration may seem like an oxymoron. These skeptics might well examine how the Baha’i electoral system removes partisanship from the democratic process, thus increasing the likelihood that those elected are not bound by narrow interests, but rather seek the well being of the entire human race.

At a time when trust in government is eroding everywhere in the world, and when the electoral process in many nations has become discredited because of endemic corruption, this new model of governance serves as an antidote to apathy, alienation and despair.

“Baha’i elections are unique and offer a remarkable spiritually uplifting experience,” says Dr. Nas Rassekh, a former delegate and an emeritus professor of history at Lewis & Clark College. “There’s no campaigning, no nominations, no electioneering and no issue platforms.”

When platforms drive elections, Rassekh says, “it’s easy for candidates to twist facts and act in ways that aren’t fair. And when elections are based on nominations and campaign speeches, it soon includes attempts to undermine support for rival candidates and question their integrity and humanity.”

So, without campaigning, nominations or election platforms, how do Baha’i delegates know whom to vote for? First, the Baha’i writings say that Delegates may vote for any adult member of the Baha’i community. In short, if one is qualified to vote, one is eligible to be elected.

In addition, guidelines have been provided in the Baha’i Writings to assist the voters in making an informed decision. Before Baha’i elections the members of the Faith may discuss how they ought to vote but they must do so without referring to specific individuals.

Arash Abizadeh, assistant professor of political science at McGill University in Canada, notes four distinct types of criteria mentioned in the Baha’i writings that voters should consider when casting their ballots in Baha’i elections:

  • Qualifications of individual Assembly members. Voters should consider individuals that possess the qualities of “unquestioned loyalty, of selfless devotion, of a well-trained mind, of recognized ability and mature experience.”
  • The collective makeup of the Assembly as a whole. Voters should consider qualities that reflect the makeup of the Assembly as a whole, such as the diversity of its membership. For instance, they should keep in mind advice from the Universal House of Justice to consider age distribution and ethnic and gender diversity in the Assembly.
  • Changes in the individual makeup of the Assembly. No matter how excellent selections from a prior year may have been, it is always important for the voters to be on the lookout for making improvements to the Spiritual Assembly. Shoghi Effendi reminds voters who notice shortcomings in members of the Assembly that the annual election gives “the community a good opportunity to remedy any defect or imperfection from which the Assembly may suffer as a result of the actions of its members.”
  • Changes in the collective makeup of the Assembly over time. Shoghi Effendi also suggested that the collective quality of the Assembly should change and improve over time. Thus, beyond specific improvements in the individual makeup of the Assembly, there should be some turnover as well.

This past Sunday, after reflecting privately on the qualities of those they have in mind to elect, Bahá’ís attending the Unit Convention in Portland voted in silence in an atmosphere of prayer and meditation. Results were announced later in the afternoon with Mr. Roger Nesbit being elected as the Unit’s delegate to this year’s national convention.

Roger is a long time resident of Portland, having attended Lewis & Clark School of Law in the 1970’s. Roger retired this year after many years of service to the Department of the Interior. He and his wife live in Northeast Portland and he serves on the Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Portland.

Similar unit conventions were held throughout the Portland-metro area and Oregon to elect delegates who will join the delegate from Portland in April 2010.