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Baha’i elections get vote for spirit and spirituality

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What if they held an election without candidates? Without the requisite hand-shaking and baby-kissing, debates or campaign promises. Without even a personal discussion of whom to vote for.

Delegates at the U.S. National Convention
What kind of election would that be?

It might be a Baha’i election. Baha’i elections possess none of the above, but they do have spirit. Lots of it. It’s even part of their name, which reflects their form of administration: National Spiritual Assembly election, Local Spiritual Assembly election. And the election held most recently: unit conventions — held to elect delegates who in turn elect the nine-member National Spiritual Assembly that governs the affairs of the Baha’i community at the national level.

Why do Baha’is hold elections? Because they have no clergy. They govern themselves. It’s not a do-it-yourself religion, to be sure, but it is democratic, with a small “d.”

At the top is the nine-member Universal House of Justice, located at the Baha’i World Center in Haifa, Israel. Members are elected every five years by the members of the world’s 182 National Spiritual Assemblies. (The last international election was held in April 2003.)

Participating in a Baha’i election, such as the recent unit conventions, which are held the first weekend in October, is a curious but uplifting experience. It requires casting aside all preconceptions of what an election looks like. (Baha’i ballots, for example, are small, blank pieces of paper on which voters write the name of their chosen delegate.)

Baha’is often are asked how an election could possibly work without nominations or discussions about how one plans to vote. Shoghi Effendi, leader and Guardian of the Faith from 1921 until his death in 1957, advised that Baha’is “refrain from influencing the opinion of others, of canvassing for any particular individual, but should stress the necessity of getting fully acquainted with the qualifications of membership referred to in our Beloved’s (Baha’u'llah) Tablets and of learning more about one another through direct, personal experience rather than through the reports and opinions of our friends. ”

Unit Convention is a time to search your heart and soul to come up with the person you think would be the best – spiritually, character-wise – delegate to elect members of the National Spiritual Assembly at its annual convention in April.

unit convention
Brian Beasley paints during Unit Convention
Baha’i elections begin with devotions – Baha’i prayers read aloud by individuals. At a recent convention for Unit 84, north of Chicago, Baha’is who live in the vicinity of the Baha’i House of Worship for the North American Continent in Wilmette gathered for devotions in the auditorium of the unique temple. This group of voters was fortunate enough to receive additional inspiration from the Baha’i House of Worship Choir.

After devotions, Baha’is meditate and pray before casting their ballot. Shoghi Effendi advised voters to “turn completely to God . . .with a purity of motive, a freedom of spirit and a sanctity of heart.”

Lest Baha’i elections sound like solemn occasions, be assured they’re also joyous and inspiring. They provide an opportunity for voters to mingle with friends and enjoy refreshments.

And like sorbets, which are used to cleanse the palate between courses, Baha’is sometimes break up the convention with arts performances.

At the unit convention in Wilmette, Carlos Arboleda played sweet, poignant Lakota tunes on his wooden flute, while Brian Beasley painted the sun rising over a body of water on a large canvas in the convention hall. Vicki Carl did a stand-up routine that was funny without needing to be censored.

The election ended with consultation, a distinctive method of non-adversarial decision-making, on a number of topics.

This was one election in which no one lost and everyone won.

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