Q&A: Are Church Members Allowed to Insert “Write-in” Candidates?

Along with turning to your version of parliamentary procedure, you should consult two other legal resources.

Q: Our church bylaws state:

“All nominees for the office of deacon shall be chosen from the membership of the church and must be nominated by a nominating committee of seven members appointed by the pastor and church board. A list of all nominees shall be distributed to all members on the night of the election.”

During our annual church business meeting, one member asserted that write-in ballots are always permissible. He insisted he was right, and also stated that both state law and parliamentary procedure allow it.

Was he right? Do members have a right under state law or parliamentary procedure to insert “write-in” candidates on their ballots when this is not authorized by our bylaws?

There are several published versions of parliamentary procedure. Many churches use Robert Rules of Order, Newly Revised, which contains the following brief mention of write-in voting:

If the bylaws require the election of officers to be by ballot and there is only one nominee for an office, the ballot must nevertheless be taken for that office unless the bylaws provide for an exception in such a case. In the absence of the latter provision, members still have the right, on the ballot, to cast “write-in votes” for other eligible persons.

This language suggests that church members have the right to “write in” the candidate of their choice when voting in an election, even if that person is not a candidate who was selected by a nominating committee.

However, there are two other legal resources that must be consulted when deciding if write-in candidates are permitted. One of these is the state nonprofit corporation law under which a church is incorporated. While most state nonprofit corporation laws do not address write-in voting, some do so. Church leaders should know how their state nonprofit corporation law addresses this issue.

A second legal resource that may address write-in voting is a church’s own bylaws or governing document. Once again, church leaders should be familiar with any provisions in their church’s governing document that address write-in voting. Note that such provisions generally supersede conflicting provisions in state nonprofit corporation law.

If write-in voting is not addressed in either state nonprofit corporation law, or a church’s governing document, then future confusion over this issue can be resolved in advance by amending the church’s governing document to explicitly permit or prohibit this practice.

Church governing documents often list qualifications for board members. The common practice of using a nominating committee to select nominees for board positions helps to ensure that candidates meet these qualifications, since such committees typically limit the list of nominees to persons who are known to meet the qualifications.

There is no such assurance when members are permitted to “write in” the candidate of their choice on a ballot, since members will not necessarily know if the candidate of their choice meets the qualifications mentioned in the church’s governing document.

Richard R. Hammar is an attorney, CPA and author specializing in legal and tax issues for churches and clergy.

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is sold with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations." Due to the nature of the U.S. legal system, laws and regulations constantly change. The editors encourage readers to carefully search the site for all content related to the topic of interest and consult qualified local counsel to verify the status of specific statutes, laws, regulations, and precedential court holdings.

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