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How Are Abstentions Handled When Counting Votes?

Sometimes a member of a local governing body (such as a city council, board of county commissioners, planning commission, or special district board) does not, for whatever reason, want to cast a vote on a matter that is being considered by that body, and so that member abstains. Assuming that the governing body allows the member to abstain, how is that abstention treated for vote counting purposes?

State law does not address abstentions by members of local governing bodies. So the circumstances under which a member of a governing body in a city, county, or special purpose district may abstain and the effect given to an abstention is up to each local body to decide.

Many jurisdictions have, by reference, adopted Robert’s Rules of Order to provide guidance in matters of voting and parliamentary procedure. The basic principles in Robert’s Rules concerning abstentions are as follows:

  • Abstentions are counted and noted, but not as a “yes” or “no” vote.
  • An abstention does not affect the voting result.
  • A member has a right to abstain and cannot be compelled to vote.
  • A member has an obligation to abstain if he or she has a direct personal interest in the matter that amounts to a legal conflict of interest.

So let’s look at several scenarios involving an abstention to see how this plays out if these guiding principles Robert’s Rules of Order are employed:

Scenario #1: A five-member board; it takes a majority of “yes” votes to pass:

  • two members vote “yes”
  • two members vote “no”
  • one abstains

Result: the matter does not pass because the abstention does not count as a vote and there was not a majority in favor.

Scenario #2: A seven-member council of a code city voting on the passage of an ordinance:

  • three “yes” votes
  • two “no” votes
  • two abstentions

Result: the ordinance does not pass because state law applicable to noncharter code cities, RCW 35A.12.120, requires an affirmative vote of a majority of the whole membership of the council to pass an ordinance. The minimum number of “yes” votes that would be required is four in a city with a seven-member council, and an abstention under Robert’s Rules does not count as a “yes” vote.

Scenario #3: A five-member board – basic rule that a majority of “yes” votes needed to pass:

  • two “yes” votes
  • one “no” vote
  • two abstentions

Result: the measure passes because it received an affirmative majority of a quorum. That is enough to pass unless there is a requirement in state law that an affirmative majority of the entire membership is required to enact the measure. (If this was a council in a code city voting on an ordinance, it would not pass because state law requires a majority of affirmative votes of the entire membership of the governing body to pass an ordinance.)

As I indicated above, a local governing body need not follow the above principles in its own local rule of procedure concerning abstentions. For example, some jurisdictions have provided that an abstention counts as a “yes” vote, for counting purposes. A local governing body may even prohibit abstentions, except in conflict of interest situations when a member may not legally vote on the matter.

Here are some examples of how other local governing bodies have addressed abstentions in their local rules of procedure:

  • Issaquah does not permit abstentions unless a councilmember has an obvious conflict of interest or appearance of fairness issue involving the matter. Unless there is such a legal disqualification, the member is excused from voting only by majority vote of the council. Absent a valid disqualification, a member not voting  is counted as voting “yes.” See Issaquah Municipal Code Sec. 2.06.110
  • The Poulsbo City Council allows abstentions only where the member is disqualified for a conflict of interest or under the appearance of fairness doctrine. Members may also be granted leave to abstain by the council if they provide a stated reason for their abstention. Absent a valid disqualification, an abstention is counted as a “yes.” If the vote of a disqualified councilmember is necessary for the council to be able to take action, then in some circumstances the councilmember can still vote. See Poulsbo City Council Rules of Procedure, Rule 5.3.
  • The Port Townsend City Council follows Robert’s Rules, with some exceptions. Councilmembers must vote on matters unless the council moves to excuse a member for “special stated reasons.” A member who is not excused from voting and who does not vote is counted as a “no” vote. See City of Port Townsend City Council Rules of Procedure, Rule 3.6.
  • The Shoreline City Council counts a member’s silence as a “yes” vote. If a member of abstains, it shall be recorded as an abstention and not included in the vote tally. See City of Shoreline City Council Rules of Procedure, Rule 7.16.

It is important to remember that, if there is a legal conflict of interest that prevents a member of a local governing body from voting on an issue, then that person cannot be authorized to vote in a local rule of procedure.

One last point to remember is that an abstention does not count as a vote under the general rule as outlined in Robert’s Rules, but the person abstaining does count towards establishing a quorum at the meeting to allow the transaction of business.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

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About Pat Mason

Pat served as MRSC's Legal Manager and wrote about public records, open public meetings, and just about any other municipal legal issue. He is now retired.