Virtual / Electronic Meetings - Rules & Tips for Larger Conventions and Delegate Meetings
The following are several questions and answers on electronic meetings from Notes and Comments on Robert's Rules, Fifth Edition, from Southern Illinois University Press (to be published 2022).
What additional rules may be needed for electronic meetings?
The 12th Edition adds extensive language about electronic (or “virtual”) meetings, including a 15-page appendix of “Sample Rules for Electronic Meetings.” Sample model rules are included, separated into four types of possible electronic meetings:
- Full-featured Internet or Internet/telephone meeting services with audio, possibly video, text and voting.
- Teleconference with Internet voting and document sharing.
- Speakerphone to allow some members who are not physically present to participate in an otherwise in-person meeting.
- Telephone meeting without Internet support (Appendix, 637-49).
Bylaws provisions authorizing an assembly, board, or committees to meet electronically should also indicate whether members have a right to participate electronically, whether the body has the right to allow or disallow such participation, and whether there is a physical location where members can attend. Instructions must include details on how to participate, and possible rules should include:
- Type of equipment or software to participate.
- How to challenge quorum.
- How members obtain recognition.
- Whether motions must be submitted in writing.
- Taking and verifying votes (9:36).[i]
If electronic meetings are a concern, definitely peruse Robert’s “Sample Rules” on pp. 635-49. Personal experience suggests the following should be considered when drafting special rules for electronic meetings:
- Direction on how members access and participate in the meeting, including the technology platform to be used by members for speaking and, if different, voting.
- The specific items of business to be considered.
- Clearly defined steps for a member to get recognized to speak or make a motion, including whether motions are simply stated audibly or must be submitted electronically in writing.
- That members must remain muted when not speaking, and if they are speaking, should reduce background noise or distractions as much as possible.
- Individual speaking limits, which will likely be shorter than at in-person meetings. (Normal debate limits in conventions of 5 or 10 minutes per member with up to two opportunities to speak tend to be far longer than members will tolerate online.)
- Total debate limits on individual items, such as per proposal or resolution.
- That motions requiring a second are already deemed seconded. (Waiting in virtual meetings for a member to be recognized, unmute, solve technology problems, and identifying themselves just to say “second” takes up valuable time in large virtual meetings.)
- That certain motions will not be recognized or not in order, depending on the specific meeting. For instance, in a telephone only meeting where motions cannot be seen by members, on-the-fly amendments from members might be unworkable. Other motions, such as to demand a rising vote, make little sense in a virtual setting.
- That an individual connectivity issue is not a basis for retaking a vote or a Point of Order, in that one person having a Wi-Fi problem cannot be the basis for repeating everything.
For those looking for one set of generic electronic meeting rules for all organizations, there is no such thing. The recommendations in Robert’s and above provide a start, but the best rules for a specific meeting will vary based on the organization, its governing documents, the technology to be used for the meeting, and the issues to be considered and voted upon at during the meeting.
Any Tips for Better Electronic Meetings Beyond the Rules?
It takes longer to transact business in a virtual meeting. Sometimes delegates can’t be heard. Or the screen will freeze, and remarks have to start over. Or the time to connect and recognize people isn’t taken into account. However long you think a virtual meeting is going to take, it will likely take half again as much.
Someone should be assigned to troubleshoot technology issues that occur during the meeting, such as log-in issues, reconnecting dropped participants, helping people with computer speaker or microphone issues, or confirming that unknown phone numbers or electronic devices should have access. It’s hard to chair the meeting and manage the technology simultaneously.
Participants should be reminded to unmute themselves, either when recognized or through an onscreen reminder slide.
Participants should be told to turn off their speakers. It is very distracting when a member’s remarks echo back a few seconds later.
Unanimous or “general” consent can save time during in-person meetings but does not work so well in large virtual meetings. Since members are likely muted, asking “Is there any objection to…,” may be met with silence. Using an online chat feature to have members type a response to the question “Is there objection?” tends to lead to confusion. Also, as noted earlier, members seem more likely to object in a virtual environment than to yell out an objection at an in-person meeting, which then requires the formal process be followed. Given these difficulties in obtaining unanimous consent virtually, it’s often faster to vote electronically on all issues, even noncontroversial ones.
Most online platforms have a “chat” or “text” feature that allows participants to communicate during the meeting. While that might be useful for other types of meetings, it can be a problem during an online business meeting if members type their thoughts on the proposal being discussed. Debate is supposed to happen aurally on the floor. To allow a second “shadow” written debate has several problems:
- Such comments are unfair to members who are not participating virtually and cannot see the comments, such as by telephone only.
- Typed comments are not bound by normal debate rules as to how long and how many times members may address the body.
- Debate should be directed to the chair, who has little control over texting.
- Texted comments can quickly become personal and not abide by normal rules of debate etiquette.
As a result, if there is a chat feature, there should be consideration of rules to restrict its use to items such as getting recognized to speak (if necessary) or IT problems. Substantive comments related to issues on the floor should be deemed out of order and possibly a basis for removal from the meeting, if egregious.[ii]
In an in-person meeting, the vote count on motions is not usually announced by the chair and not entered in the minutes. Votes on motions are announced simply as having been “adopted” or “lost,” unless a count has been ordered or the vote is by ballot. The nature of voting online pretty much requires that all votes be announced or shown as actual numbers or percentages. Because everyone knows the electronic platform is tallying such results, members will quickly ask for a count if the full announcement is not made automatically.
Jim Slaughter is an attorney, Certified Professional Parliamentarian, Professional Registered Parliamentarian, and past President of the American College of Parliamentary Lawyers. He is author of four books on meeting procedure, including Robert's Rules of Order Fast Track and Notes and Comments on Robert’s Rules, Fifth Edition. Jim is a partner in Law Firm Carolinas. For more information, visit www.jimslaughter.com.
Charts and articles are intended to provide general information on parliamentary procedure and are not legal advice or a legal opinion.