In board and membership meetings you’ll sometimes hear the phrase that the chair gets to vote “in case of a tie vote.” But is that accurate? In short, no. The chair only being permitted to vote in the event of a tie is not the general rule, would be unfair, and is not language found in any of the major parliamentary authorities, including Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised (12th Edition). While a few state statutes and some bylaws have such language, that’s mostly due to a misunderstanding of common parliamentary practices. So, what’s the general rule in Robert’s and other parliamentary manuals?
Chair Voting in Smaller Boards
In general parliamentary procedure as well as Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised (12th Edition), small boards operate much less formally than membership meetings or conventions. In fact, Robert’s Rules has a whole section devoted to informal “Procedure in Small Boards,” which is defined as “not more than about a dozen members present.” The presiding officer of a small board of directors (if a member of the body) is a full participant—the chair can make motions, speak, and vote on all issues, although some politically choose not to do so. (For other parliamentary procedure differences between small board and membership meetings, see Board Procedures Versus a Membership Meeting or Convention).
Chair Voting in Membership Meetings or Conventions
In larger bodies the chair is supposed to be less a participant and more of a presiding officer. Even so, there are instances in which the chair is permitted to vote, such as when the vote is by ballot. And even at other times, the presiding officer may vote if the vote will affect the outcome. That means that the chair can vote “AYE” in breaking a tie and cause something that was going to fail to pass. However, that’s only half the story. Under Robert’s Rules and other parliamentary manuals the chair can also vote “NO” in the event a proposal is going to pass by one vote, which creates a tie and causes the motion to fail (since it did not receive a majority vote). So even in larger bodies where the chair usually does not vote, the chair can vote to cause a proposal to pass or to be defeated. If the chair could only vote in the “event of a tie,” the presiding officer would only ever vote AYE. And in the event of a two-thirds vote (e.g., to limit or close debate, to suspend the rules, etc.), such a rule would make no sense as there is no such thing as a “tie” in a 2/3’s vote.
Issues surrounding the chair voting and tie votes are covered more in both Robert’s Rules of Order Fast Track and Notes and Comments on Robert’s Rules, Fifth Edition.
Robert‘s Rules of Order Fast Track notes:
Members often ask about how to break a tie vote. In contrast to a tie during an election (see Chapter 8 for details), a tie vote on a motion isn’t too much of an issue. If a motion requires a majority vote and only receives 50 percent of the votes, the motion fails because it didn’t receive more than half of the votes. As to a two-thirds vote, the vote either is or isn’t two thirds, so the concept of a tie is irrelevant.
One additional issue regarding tie votes is more relevant to larger assemblies. As discussed in Chapter 1, the chair tends to be a full participant in smaller boards and votes on all issues. As a result, the chair’s vote is already in the totals. That’s not the case in larger assemblies where, except for a ballot vote, the chair tends not to vote unless his vote will affect the outcome.
That means the chair can impact the vote in one of two ways:
In the event of a tie: The chair can vote in favor of the motion. Without that vote, the motion will fail, so the chair’s vote will change the outcome so that the motion is adopted.
If a motion is going to pass by one vote: The chair can vote against the motion. Because there is now a tie, the motion will fail.Robert’s Rules of Order Fast Track, p. 85-86.
Notes and Comments on Robert’s Rules of Order (which is a Q&A on Robert’s Rules and previously won the Phifer Award from the Commission on American Parliamentary Practice, an affiliate of the National Communication Association) provides:
What about in a tie vote on a motion?
A motion either obtains a majority (or two-thirds) vote or it does not (4:56; 44:12). Since a majority vote is more than half the votes cast, a tie vote simply means that the motion is rejected. When a vote results in a tie, the chair should state, “By a vote of ten in favor and ten against, the motion is lost. The next item of business is . . .” (see next question if the chair can and intends to vote). A tie vote in an election is treated differently. (See “What about a tie vote in an election?, page 171.)
When may the chair vote?
Theoretically, the presiding officer has the same voting privileges as other members. In practice, the chair voting by voice or show of hands conflicts with the chair’s responsibility to be impartial. Robert’s recognizes the right of the chair to vote in larger assemblies, but suggests that the chair exercise voting rights only when a vote is by ballot (4:56) or “when the vote would affect the outcome” (4:56). As a result, a chair can break a tie by voting in FAVOR of a motion (causing it to be adopted) OR can create a tie by voting AGAINST a motion (causing it to be lost). The principle also works in reverse: when the vote is a tie or a motion is adopted by one vote, the chair affects the result by choosing not to vote. If the vote is a tie, the chair in effect votes against the motion by declining to vote in favor. If a motion is adopted by one vote, the chair in effect votes against the motion by declining to vote in favor. If the motion is adopted by one vote, the chair in effect votes for the motion by declining to vote against.
The statement is sometimes heard that a chair can “only vote to break a tie,” which is wrong. The phrase break a tie should be replaced with affect the outcome. The same principle applies to decisions requiring a two-thirds vote.Notes and Comments on Robert’s Rules, Fifth Edition, p. 159-160.