Seconding a motion

Seconding a motion is an important step but often one that is given more weight than it deserves.

I attend many meetings as a professional registered parliamentarian with Michigan State University Extension. A common mistake I often witness during those meetings is the attention a board gives to the “seconder.” Allow me to explain:

There are six steps to handling a motion. The first is for a member to be recognized by the chair and then to state a motion. This article focuses on the second step which is for another member to second the motion. A member who wishes it considered says “I second the motion,” or, “I second it” or may also simply say “Second.” The member need not be recognized by the chair to second the motion.

But why does a motion require another member to second it? Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised, 11th Edition offers a complete description of seconding a motion on pages 35 – 37. A second indicates to the chair that at least one other member besides the person who stated the motion would like to have the motion placed before the assembly. In addition, if the motion before the assembly has come from a duly appointed committee (made up of more than one person), the motion does not need a second because the recommendation is presumably being brought forward by more than two people already.

A person who seconds the motion has neither claim to the motion nor any obligation to agree with the motion. Seconding a motion does not indicate that the member is in support of the motion, only that he or she thinks the idea should be discussed. In fact, it may be an idea that the member wishes to speak negatively about in order to persuade the group to vote the motion down. This is a common misunderstanding, especially if the custom of a board is to use the term “support” instead of “second.” Saying “support” is not necessarily wrong, but can lead to confusion among board members, especially for those who would like to discuss the motion because they have no clear opinion on the issue and would like the question to come before the group so they can hear what other members have to say.

Some boards have a custom of placing the name of the person who seconds a motion in the minutes. This is not a required practice unless it is defined as a special rule or in the bylaws of a group. I have been in many meetings, where discussion has ensued for several minutes on a motion and it has progressed far enough that the group is ready to vote but just prior to the vote (or sometimes even after the vote) the secretary will ask “who seconded that motion?” At that point in time, a second is simply irrelevant. Obviously more than one person wanted to discuss the motion and a second serves no purpose. Technically, if debate begins on a motion before a second is made, and it is policy to record the “seconder” in the minutes, the member who started the debate has provided the second. The role of the secretary is to document the actions taken by the board not to make sure a motion had a second - that role belongs to the presiding officer.

The chair must make sure a board’s time is spent wisely and ascertain whether or not more than one member wants a motion to come before the group. The presiding officer can stall debate until a second is made or call for a second to speed the group along. Unless objected to by a member, the chair may move directly to debate without a second when handling routine motions.

 It is also important to know, that the absence of a second does not affect the validity of a motion’s adoption, it is merely a step in the process of handling a motion.

This is one in a series of articles on parliamentary procedure and how to conduct more effective organizational meetings. For a complete list in this series go to the Parliamentary Procedure resource.

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