World Science Fiction Society
WSFS Business Meeting - How it Works
An overview by Kevin Standlee
Periodically I write about the forms, structures, and procedures of the Business Meeting. This guide is designed to help new attendees understand and participate in the meeting. And I've also found that even regular attendees often don't know all of this, so hopefully there's something here for everyone!
First and foremost: Every Attending Member May Attend and Participate in the Business Meeting. More than once I have had attending members of the convention say variations of "Where's the visitor's gallery so the rest of us members can watch?" or "I am only an ordinary member of the convention; how do I get to vote?" or other wording that assumes that the Business Meeting is made up of some Higher Sort of Fan and that mere mortal members aren't allowed into the meeting. If you have an attending membership badge for the convention, you are entitled to be at the meeting, which means you can introduce motions, debate proposals, and vote on them. You don't need to be elected to a council of delegates, board of directors, or anything else. You represent yourself.
When is the Business Meeting? There are three (very rarely four) sessions of the WSFS Business Meeting scheduled at each Worldcon. Most years (including this year), they start at 10 a.m. on the second, third, and fourth days of Worldcon. That means that this year, the first meeting is on Friday at 10 a.m. Yes, I know that's before noon. That's life. A Worldcon once tried to schedule it at 8:30 a.m. and got screamed at and the rules were changed to require it not start before 10 a.m. In 1993, I moved it to Noon and also got screamed at for wasting so much valuable Worldcon programming time.
How long is the Business Meeting? Each meeting usually lasts between 90 minutes and three hours.
Why three meetings? Each of the three meetings is somewhat different from the others. The Friday meeting is called the Preliminary Business Meeting, where agenda matters are settled. Saturday is the Main Business Meeting, where debate and votes happen on constitutional amendments. Sunday is the Site Selection Business Meeting, where the results of Worldcon Site Selection are announced and any business not resolved on Saturday is dealt with. In the highly unlikely event of there not being enough time on Sunday to resolve everything, there is an "overflow" session scheduled for the last day of the Worldcon. The last time we used that was 1992, and nowadays it is held in reserve. In recent years, all substantive business (constitutional amendments) have been resolved by the end of the second day's meeting, so Sunday has been mostly ceremonial, consisting of hearing site selection results and the initial presentation from the winning bid, then dealing with Question Time for the following year's convention (a formal time for that bid to take questions about their event) and bids for future Worldcons.
So I can skip the Preliminary Business Meeting, right? Wrong. From its description, you might be tempted to skip Friday's meeting, because it looks like it mostly just receives reports, sets debate times, and works on the agenda for the Saturday and Sunday meetings. But you'd be wrong to think that nothing important happens on Friday. This meeting can amend proposals (including WSFS constitutional amendments) so that if you wait until Saturday you might find that the proposal in which you were interested had been amended completely away from what you expected. The meeting can even kill new business, including constitutional amendments, through the mechanism of Objection to Consideration.
Objection to Consideration? What's that? OTC is the 12-ton block that drops on proposals that are so unpopular that they can't even muster a one-third vote in favor of discussing them. When an item of new business comes before the meeting, before there is any debate and before any amendments have been proposed (and stated by the chair), any member may rise (possibly interrupting other members because OTC has a high "precedence," or priority in debate) and say, "I Object to the Consideration of the Question." This motion means, "I think this is such a bad idea that I want us to kill it right here, right now, without debate." The motion to Object to Consideration is itself undebatable, and furthermore, you can't start discussing the proposal to which the OTC has been lodged. What happens is that the Chair asks for a vote of who is in favor of considering the question. If two-thirds of the people voting vote against consideration, the original proposal is killed without debate. The person who made the original motion doesn't even get to make an opening statement other than what was included with the proposal in writing.
Note that voting in favour of consideration does not necessarily mean you favour the proposal. It does mean that you favour debating it. That may be because you want to hear the makers' arguments, make your own arguments against the proposal, or offer amendments to change the proposal to something more to your liking. I have, for instance, voted in favour of considering proposals that I ultimately voted against, because I wanted to hear the debate in order to make up my mind on them.
Objection to Consideration is strong, and it effectively can only happen at the Preliminary Business Meeting, because it only applies to new business when it first comes up, and that almost always happens only at the Preliminary Meeting. This means that you should come to the Preliminary Meeting if (a) there is something you think is so bad that you want to try and kill it before it even gets off the ground or (b) there is a proposal you want to make sure makes it to the floor of the Main Business Meeting, so you want to defend it against someone else lodging an OTC on it.
A few words about Voting. Voting on non-controversial items is normally done by Unanimous Consent. If the Chair says something like, "Without objection, [X] will be done" it means, "If there is anyone who thinks we need to take an actual vote, say so now." When the Chair asks this, don't dilly-dally; he'll move right along and you'll lose your chance to say anything at all if you don't call out "object" or rise and try to get the chair's attention. Note that you shouldn't do this solely for the sake of form; it's common enough to let unanimous-consent motions go through on things where you know your side doesn't have the votes to defeat the proposal.
We don't usually do votes by "ayes and noes" anymore. It just led to people trying to out-shout each other. Instead we use an Uncounted Show of Hands, where the chair calls for the affirmative and the negative in turn and the members raise hands to show their support for one side or the other. These shows of hands are not counted. If the result is not conclusive (and in any event if there are enough members who call for a "Division" meaning a counted vote), the Chair will proceed to a counted vote.
Counted votes are usually done by a Standing Serpentine Vote. This is done by those people in favour of the motion standing, and then counting off one at a time, starting at the front, moving back and forth across the room, and then back through the room until everyone who wants to vote has done so. When the count gets to you, you call out the next number and sit down. You may think this is slow, but it's faster than multiple counts of shows of hands, keeps the blood from draining out of your arm while you wait, deals with dithering voters, and generally makes the total quite obvious when it is done.
Abstentions are not counted. There's no point: if the Chair were to call for abstentions, people who say nothing have abstained just as much as those who raise their hands. An abstention is not a vote against a proposal; it's not a vote at all, and it's the same as if the person were not even in the room. For example, if there are 200 people at the meeting, and 30 people vote yes, 10 vote no, and everyone else doesn't vote at all, the motion passes 30-10, and the fact that there were 160 other people present who didn't vote doesn't matter.
Why are there all of these complicated rules? Parliamentary procedure as codified in Robert's Rules of Order, Newly Revised, along with WSFS's own Standing Rules, are there to help large groups like the Business Meeting consider proposals in a structured format that allows proper consideration of the rights of individuals, minorities (particularly strong minorities, defined as more than one-third of the attendees), majorities (majorities have rights, too), super-majorities (the 2/3 vote required to kill motions or close debate are protections against having the meeting's time wasted), and absentees (you can't suspend your own constitution). Experience shows that, particularly in large groups, you can't just let anyone who wants to do so speak for however long he or she wants, and without structure that is fair, it turns into a free-for-all.
Remember that "fair" doesn't always mean "I get what I personally wanted." It's a deliberative assembly run in a democratic manner. That means that sometimes you don't win, but it does mean that you and everyone else has to play by the same rules.
If you want to see what a past Business Meeting looked like, here are links to video of the 2012 Preliminary and Main meetings:
The Minutes of the 2012 Business Meeting (PDF) contain the written reports that were submitted to the meeting, the text of motions introduced, and the results of what happened to each proposal. Generally, the minutes are a record of what was done, not what was said.