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Part I


Chapter 1 - The Basics

In a democratic society, we hold dear many principles of conduct and self-government. When people come together in their organizations and governments to conduct business, certain rules, referred to collectively as parliamentary procedure, must be applied correctly to maintain these democratic principles.

Organization members commonly make two mistakes: They do not know parliamentary procedure at all, and/or they misapply it because they don't understand the underlying democratic principles or they want to manipulate them. These mistakes invariably lead to confusion and, in the worst cases, can result in intimidation and the loss of members' rights. This chapter describes the fundamental democratic principles from which parliamentary procedure emerges and explains how these principles affect and apply to the structure of an organization. Parliamentary procedure is defined, followed by a discussion of its importance and application in protecting basic democratic principles. All members and their organizations must understand these principles to ensure the preservation of the democratic process.


There are basically two ways to structure an organization. One way is based on the authoritarian model, which favors the concentration of power in a leader or a small group of people who may or may not be responsible to the members. In the extreme form of this model, one person or a small group (such as a board of directors) may make all the decisions with no input or final approval from the membership.

The second way to structure an organization is based on the democratic model, which means that the people or the members govern. In the extreme form of this model, the members, not elected representatives, make all decisions. However, in most organizations, there is an agreed upon balance of power achieved between members and the officers they elect.

The democratic style of government is founded upon laws and the rights and responsibilities of all the members, not the whims of an unaccountable leadership. Abraham Lincoln defined democratic government as "government of the people, by the people, and for the people." An organization that has no rules or governing documents to establish a course of action eventually finds itself in a state of anarchy. In the words of Henry M. Robert, who wrote what we know today as Robert's Rules of Order, "Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty."


For an organization to survive and grow, the democratic model has proved to be the best form of government because it makes use of the talents and abilities of all the members. Organizations are democratic to the extent that they conform in the following ways:

Governing documents should clearly state the rights and obligations of members and officers. These documents consist of the corporate charter (if there is one), which is issued by the state for incorporation, bylaws (or the organization's constitution), and any rules of order (parliamentary rules) or standing rules (administrative rules). Each organization should adopt a parliamentary authority, which is a book of common parliamentary law that details the rules for conducting meetings, electing officers, and making and adopting motions. All members are entitled to have a copy of their governing rules.

For a democracy to succeed, the members must work harmoniously together. To accomplish this, each member must know the purpose and goals of the organization, its rules, the rights of each individual member, and what each member is expected to do. One of the greatest threats to a democratic organization is for the members to become apathetic and let a small group of the membership do all the work. This creates divisions and promotes authoritarianism. Another threat is for a small group to work secretly behind the scenes to accomplish its own goals or its own agenda and then push it through without the rest of the membership having an input either through discussion or through the investigative process. Such actions cause mistrust and hostility.

If the principles of democracy are not upheld in the organization, knowing and following the rules of parliamentary procedure is valueless.


Parliamentary procedure enables members to take care of business in an efficient manner and to maintain order while business is conducted. It ensures that everyone gets the right to speak and vote. Parliamentary procedure takes up business one item at a time and promotes courtesy, justice, and impartiality. It ensures the rule of the majority while protecting the rights of the minority and absent members. Adhering to parliamentary procedure is democracy in action.

The procedures, or rules, are found in the organization's bylaws, in its standing rules, and in its adopted parliamentary authority. A parliamentary authority is a reference book that helps the members decide what to do when the group has no written rules concerning how certain things are done. You could adopt this resource as a parliamentary authority.


Parliamentary procedures provide proven, time-tested ways of determining action and carrying on an organization's business. One frequently asked question is, "Why do I need to know these parliamentary rules - what difference do they make?" You might compare knowing parliamentary procedures with knowing the rules of the road. Because you've learned the rules of driving, you know which side of the road to drive on, who has the right of way at street corners, who goes first at a four-way stop, and the rules of turning left in front of oncoming traffic. Obeying the rules of the road keeps traffic flowing smoothly and prevents accidents from happening. When everyone knows the parliamentary rules, meetings run smoothly, and the head-on collisions that can happen during the discussion of controversial motions can be prevented. If everyone in your group learns the basics of parliamentary procedure, you'll have more productive meetings: More members will make and discuss motions, and more members will be willing to serve as officers and committee chairmen.


Before learning the specific rules, everyone needs to know three fundamental principles of democracy and parliamentary procedure. If you can remember these principles, you'll be able to solve problems that come up in your organization and meetings, even if you can't remember the specific rules:

This principle ensures that, even though the majority rules, the minority has a right to be heard and its ideas are taken seriously. Similarly, the minority doesn't leave the organization because it didn't win; it knows that it may win another day. Following this principle preserves the unity and harmony of the organization.

The following sections explain the individual rules that support these three basic principles.

Taking Up Business One Item at a Time

Like most people, members in a business meeting can do only one thing at a time. Therefore, the first principle of parliamentary procedure is that business is taken up one item at a time. The following rules support this principle:

Promoting Courtesy, Justice, Impartiality, and Equality

As children, we're taught how to be courteous toward others. In our daily dealings and meetings with other people, courtesies are the necessities of life that promote harmony and unity. Here are ways to apply courtesy during meetings:

Here is how justice, impartiality, and equality operate in meetings:

The Rule of the Majority and Protection of the Minority

One of the most important rights that members have is the right to vote, knowing that the majority rules. At the same time, the majority never has the right to silence or take away rights from the minority, absent members, or individual members. Here's how this principle translates into action:

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