How to Avoid Yellow Card Hell

My parliamentary articles tend to be general. Most often, they address broad procedural issues of widespread concern. This one is rather specific, as it addresses a practice most often encountered by state affiliates of the National Education Association (NEA), although some other types of organizations have similar procedures.

Different meetings have different methods of recognition, most often due to past practice or convention standing rules. The NEA and its state affiliate meetings have long used recognition cards for those wishing to speak. Unlike voting cards (described in Voting Cards at Conventions & Annual Meetings), recognition cards are different and explained as follows in Notes and Comments on Roberts Rules, Fourth Edition (SPOILER ALERT: a new Fifth Edition with references to the new Robert’s comes out this summer):

While there are various card-recognition systems, a low-tech method is to have several cardstock colored cards, such as green, red, yellow, and white at each microphone. To speak in favor of a motion, a delegate raises a green card and awaits recognition. To speak against a motion, a delegate raises a red card and awaits recognition. The chair utilizes the green and red cards to alternate between pro and con speakers. Subsidiary motions, such as to Postpone Indefinitely, Refer, or Postpone, can be made on either a green or red card. The yellow card allows a member to “jump ahead” of delegates with green or red cards for certain motions, such as for a Request for Information or to Suspend the Rules. A white card immediately interrupts all business and is used for urgent matters, such as a Point of Order, Appeal, or Objection to Consideration. Spotters on stage can help the chair and parliamentarian keep track of speakers by arranging colored notecards in the correct order and handing them to the parliamentarian for review. Particularly for large conventions, the card-recognition system is an inexpensive means of alternating debate and recognizing certain motions ahead of other motions.

The intent behind recognition cards is a good one—without advanced technology such as electronic recognition systems, it’s good to know for what purpose a delegate rises. Depending on the reason a delegate seeks recognition, they may get recognized ahead of or even interrupt another speaker. And unlike a monthly meeting with 30 members, it’s hard to know that a delegate is seeking recognition in an assembly of 500 without such a visual aid.

Card systems vary by (1) the number of types of cards, usually three to five, and (2) what can be done on each colored card. However, one recent state representative assembly used this process:

  • Green Card – to gain recognition to speak in favor of a proposal or to make most motions.
  • Red Card – to gain recognition and speak against a proposal or to make most motions.
  • Yellow Card – to gain priority over the next speaker, usually to ask a question through a Request for Information (formerly called a “Point of Information”).
  • Blue Card – to interrupt a speaker for purposes of a Point of Order or other urgent matter.

Recognition cards generally work well, but I’ve seen several recent meetings when delegates could not seem to get out of “Yellow Card Hell.” By that, I’m describing a situation where a few individuals have questions with Yellow Cards, and because Yellow Cards take priority over or “jump ahead” of Green and Red debate cards, no one can get recognized while Yellow Cards remain to debate or to make other motions, such as to Close Debate. Such a scenario can seem interminable when a thousand delegates are ready to vote on a proposal, but ten or twenty delegates are preventing that from happening through Yellow Card questions. (NOTE: This scenario has nothing to do with Robert’s Rules, as Robert’s does not allow Requests for Information to jump ahead of other speakers. Any problem is the result of a specific meeting rule giving recognition priority to Yellow Cards.)

Several possible rules changes could prevent Yellow Cards from taking over a meeting. However, when such changes are proposed, I’ll often hear “but we’ve always done it this way” or “but this is how NEA does it.” When such responses are made, it’s important to note differences between NEA RA and state affiliate meetings as well that times have changed.

State NEA affiliate meetings are different from the NEA RA. The NEA Representative Assembly is longer and provides many means of connecting with proposers of business items. Delegate contact information tends to be required for those submitting proposals, which allows other delegates to reach out early and get questions answered in advance. The NEA RA also has a “World of Information“ where delegates can address questions. As a result, percentagewise there are far fewer Requests for Information on the NEA RA floor than at state RAs.

The times and technology are different. The intent behind Yellow Cards was to get questions answered before voting. Back in the day, however, there were few means of getting in touch with makers of motions before business was being discussed. These days it is easy to require email or contact information for makers of motions so that questions can be resolved BEFORE an item is on the floor, even if just earlier at the same meeting.

Requests for Information are often not legitimate Requests for Information. An underlying philosophy of Yellow Card priority is that getting questions answered is more important than debate. But too often Yellow Cards aren’t “real” questions. The intent of a Request for Information is to ask a question for that the maker does not already know the answer to. All too often, Requests for Information are used for debate (i.e., most any question that begins with “Isn’t it true that . . . ?” or ones that make a statement rather than a question). Such improper use is particularly tempting since the Yellow Card can jump ahead of PRO and CON cards.

In the above scenario, there is no clear parliamentary method to get out of Yellow Card Hell. Delegates sometimes become so frustrated that someone gets recognized on a priority card (if permitted with that color card) and moves “to Suspend the Rules to stop any further Yellow Cards” or “to move on with business.” Parliamentary procedure shouldn’t be so complicated. Delegates shouldn’t have to create motions to deal with what seems an improper use of the process. Far too often, delegates have no idea of what parliamentary step to take and simply sit and fume about the parliamentary impasse.

There are options for addressing concerns with Yellow Cards without eliminating them altogether. The most straightforward route is to adopt an assembly rule that Yellow Cards go into rotation with PRO and CON debate cards. Such a rule could be as follows: “Requests for Information shall be recognized in rotation with Green and Red cards [Green, Red, Yellow].”

Some organizations feel that such a strict rotation is too drastic and diminishes the benefit of questions. If so, an alternative might be to adopt a rule permitting a set number of Yellow Cards before placing them into rotation with PRO and CON debate cards. For example, this rule would permit an initial three (or other number) Yellow Cards before entering the GREEN, RED, YELLOW rotation: “Following any debate by the maker of a motion, up to three Requests for Information shall be recognized, after which Requests for Information shall be recognized in rotation [Green, Red, Yellow]. Such a rule gives initial preference to a few questions, but then gives an opportunity for debate and other motions.

NOTE: Regardless of any specific Yellow Card rule, DO NOT ALLOW questions to be recognized BEFORE the maker or supporter of a motion first speaks to the proposal. Allowing a first PRO speaker often answers some, if not all, questions in advance.

Whether any change is made, it may be useful to consider whether giving priority Requests for Information is hindering, rather than helping, the flow of business. Questions can be useful, but a few individuals should not be allowed to hold up a large delegate body because they did not ask their questions earlier. I recently attended a meeting where about ten delegates out of 600 asked repeated questions when it was abundantly clear the rest of the body (so about 98%) wanted to move to a vote. Such a situation is not about respecting the minority—it was rule by the minority, which can be worse than majority rule.


Jim Slaughter is an attorney, Certified Professional Parliamentarian, Professional Registered Parliamentarian, and author of four books on proper meeting procedure and Robert’s Rules of Order. He serves as Parliamentarian to many of the largest associations and unions in the country, including the National Education Association, and has served as Parliamentarian at more than 70 state NEA RAs. For more information, visit http://www.jimslaughter.com