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 (11th 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 (11th 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 The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Parliamentary Procedure Fast-Track and Notes and Comments on Robert’s Rules, Fourth Edition. The Complete Idiot’s Guide 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.
Notes and Comments (which is a Q&A on Robert’s Rules and won the 2013 Phifer Award from the Commission on American Parliamentary Practice, an affiliate of the National Communication Association) provides:
What about a tie vote?
A motion either obtains a majority (or two-thirds) vote or it does
not (53–54, 405–6). Since a majority vote is more than half the votes
cast, a tie vote simply means that the motion is rejected. When the
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 intends to vote). Members who recall
the times when they used to hem and haw over what to do about
a tie vote will be in awe of the chair’s efficiency and knowledge of
When may the chair vote?
Theoretically, the presiding officer has the same voting privileges as
every other member. In practice, however, the chair’s adherence to
this privilege when the vote is by voice or by show of hands would
conflict with the responsibility to remain impartial. Robert’s recognizes
the right of the chair to vote, but suggests that the chair protect
impartiality by “exercising his voting right only when the vote would
affect the outcome” (50, 53–54, 405–6). Thus, the chair may vote to
break a tie in favor of a motion she favors or to create a tie if against
a motion. The reverse is also true: when the vote is a tie or a motion
is adopted by one vote, the chair affects the result by not voting. If the
chair is against the motion and the vote is a tie, the chair is in effect
voting against the motion by declining to vote in favor. If the motion
is adopted by one vote, the chair is in effect voting for the motion by
declining to vote.
A statement that the chair can vote to break a tie is half wrong and
therefore misleading. The expression break a tie should be replaced
with the phrase affect the outcome. The principle applies equally to
decisions requiring a two-thirds vote.