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Do the ‘Ayes’ Have It?

Voting is the cornerstone of every action that a city or town council takes, whether it’s for enacting ordinances or adopting resolutions. Because every vote can have a meaningful impact on the community, councilmembers, residents and news organizations often pay attention to the processes involved to determine that the council handled the votes correctly.
 
Here are some key issues to consider when taking votes: 

Voting process

When voting, councilmembers should use the rules of procedure they have adopted by ordinance. If there are no specific rules in place, but the council has adopted Robert’s Rules of Order, then a vote on a motion is usually taken by voice, with members stating “aye” or “nay,” or by asking for a show of hands, as determined by the chair or by customary practice of the council. The chair must always ask for negative votes. A roll-call vote may be required, either by motion or by tradition. Generally, councils and other public bodies should not vote by ballot. 

Tie votes 

Approving a motion requires a majority of the members participating in a meeting, and therefore a vote that results in a tie means that the motion has failed. This rule is often found in the city or town’s code, but it also appears in Roberts Rules of Order, which states that a “majority means ‘more than half.’” 

Conflicts of interest and abstentions

Public officials in South Carolina cannot use their offices in a way that provides them or members of their immediate family with financial gain, according to SC Code Section 8-13-700, and this includes making decisions that affect the financial interests of anyone with whom they are associated. As a result, they should abstain from votes, deliberations and other actions where a potential conflict of interest exists. When they observe a potential conflict of interest arising, they should create a written statement describing the potential conflict and submit it to the council. The SC Ethics Commission advises that members who recuse themselves physically leave the room for the portion of the meeting concerning the conflict of interest.  
Because abstentions can otherwise interfere with the business of the council, councils should consider including in their rules of procedure the requirement that all members present must vote on every motion except when a conflict of interest exists. 

Quorums 

In most cases, council action requires the presence of a majority of the body, and this quorum can then act as the body. A seven-member body, for example, needs four members for a quorum, and an eight-member body needs five members present.

Quorums can be complicated by councilmembers having a conflict of interest on a particular vote. If the members remain physically present but they abstain from voting, then their presence counts toward establishing the quorum. If members vote even though they have a conflict of interest, then their presence does not count toward establishing the quorum, and the quorum would be determined as if they were absent, as affirmed most recently in Anderson County v. Preston

In the unusual situation in which it is impossible to obtain a quorum without counting the conflicted members, the members should properly recuse themselves. They should remain physically present for the vote, and state clearly on the record that their only reason for doing so is the preserve the quorum. 

For more information about conducting public meetings and voting, see the Handbook for Municipal Officials in South Carolina.