Basic Parliamentary Motions: A Quick Look

Discussion and decision making at Town Meeting are based on motions, which set the assembly into action. Here are some basic motions and common phrases you will hear at Town Meeting:

The Main Motion

Example: “I move to accept Article 6 as written.” Each article on the warning must be “moved” and seconded; it is then ready to be discussed by the group. In discussion, citizens raise their hands and are called on by the Moderator. When you are called on, stand up, state your name, then speak your mind.

The Amendment

“Amending” a motion means proposing a change to the motion. Example: An article is moved and seconded; then, during discussion, someone says “I move to amend Article 17 by reducing the dollar amount from $10,000 to $5,000.” After someone seconds this, debate shifts to discussing this amendment. Once people have discussed the amendment, the Moderator puts the amendment to a vote. If the voters reject the amendment, the group now returns to discussing the original main motion. If voters approve the amendment, the discussion focuses on the main motion as amended.

The Vote

After the group deliberates on a motion and the Moderator feels all points of view have been heard, s/he will call for a voice vote. If you are in favor of the motion, you will say “aye.” If opposed, say “No” or “Nay.” The Moderator will then announce the results of the vote. Another form of voting you may expect to see at town meeting is a show of hands or a standing vote. This may be asked for if the Moderator feels the voice vote was too close to call, or if a voter disagrees with the Moderator after the results of a voice vote is announced. And for any vote, any voter may move that the vote be taken via paper ballot; if seven voters support this motion, pieces of paper will be distributed and each voter writes their vote. Sometimes a checklist and a ballot box are used in this method; sometimes tellers simply collect the ballots and count them on a table in front of the room.

Point of Order/Appeal

If you don’t understand a ruling of the Moderator, speak up, saying “Point of order, Mr. (or Ms.) Moderator.” After the Moderator recognizes you, ask your question.

If at any time you disagree with a ruling of the Moderator, you may appeal his or her decision. The Moderator is obligated to ask the assembly, “Shall the Moderator’s decision be sustained?” If a majority of voters say “no,” the Moderator’s ruling is overturned.

Pass Over

Sometimes it becomes clear to voters that they don’t want to vote “yes” or “no” on an article; they would prefer not to vote on the article (main motion) at all. Traditional Vermont Town Meeting practice calls this a motion to “pass over” the article; if offered after a main motion is made, a simple majority is required.

Limit or Cut Off Debate

If voters feel that debate on a certain article could go on all night if some control mechanism were not in place, someone might move to limit debate, say to a total of twenty minutes. If two-thirds of the voters agree, debate can be so limited. In a case where debate has gone on long enough—voters have made up their minds but some people are still repeating the basic arguments—a voter could move to cut off debate, also referred to as “calling the question.” Once moved and seconded, calling the question is a non-debatable motion. If you agree that all voices have been heard and you are ready to vote on the issue at hand, you should vote in favor of calling the question. However, if you want to continue discussion, you should vote against calling the question. Two-thirds of the group must vote yes on calling the question in order to cut off debate; otherwise, discussion continues.

Remember that citizens have come to the meeting to speak and to hear each other’s viewpoints. In most cases, it is not necessary either to limit or cut off debate; the Moderator will simply call for a vote when s/he feels that all points of view have been heard. This avoids having to vote on calling the question.

A Note About Proper Amendments

Remember that a Town Meeting can’t take up an issue unless it is warned. The same general principle applies to amendments. You can’t take an article to buy a truck and amend it to buy a road grader, because the amendment raises a subject that hasn’t been warned. For the same reason, you can’t convert an article to raise money by taxes to an article to borrow money to pay something.

Amendments must be germane to the motion they seek to amend: amendments must relate to the motion. An amendment cannot introduce a new and independent question or raise an issue (disguised as an amendment) previously decided by the assembly.

Adapted from “The Meeting Will Come To Order,” distributed by the Vermont Institute for Government.