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On April 29th of 2013, more than 1000 delegates from 157 countries and territories gathered in Haifa, Israel, at the Haifa Convention Center, to elect the Universal House of Justice, the supreme governing body of the Baha’i Faith.
As a photojournalist I’ve covered everything from the latest pop icons, movie stars, natural and not-so-natural disasters, earthquakes and tsunamis and the rebuilding of nations after years of war. I have also had the job of covering political elections, meeting mayors, governors, senators, prime ministers and presidents, before elections, during elections, and after elections. In short, I think I can safely say I know elections. I can also safely say that nothing I’ve experienced prepared me for being part of the election of the Universal House of Justice.
Baha’i elections don’t look like anything else — they have no bells and whistles, no campaigns or electioneering or nominations or candidates. Nine delegates from each nation, themselves elected to serve on the national governing body from the believers of their respective nations, silently pray and meditate and simply write down nine names. They elect those they feel will best serve the international governing body of the Baha’i Faith.
On the morning of the first day of the four-day international convention, the voting commences. One by one, each delegate’s name is called out, alphabetically by nation, and the delegate steps forward to cast his or her confidential ballot with the utmost reverence. We hear no talking, no cheering, no applauding — just a beautifully comfortable silence for nearly three hours. Then the last ballot is cast, and the crowd erupts in a standing ovation.
What takes place from here is even more mystical.
The chief teller, one of the 19 tellers appointed from the delegates, seals the ballot box with a strip of tape and a signature, and the ballot box gets carried away for counting.
In the “regular” elections that I have experienced as a reporter, this is where the “fun” begins — the gossip, the reckless media assumptions, and the brief period where no one is held accountable for what they speculate or say. Often nations and communities descend into disunity, divided while the bantering continues, the insults and rumors fly, and at times, violence erupts. But, in this election none of that occurs. Absolutely nobody talks about how they think the votes will go. No one mentions whom he or she voted for — no speculation, no “preliminary reports”, no “buzz”, no “spin-room”… period. For the Baha’is, this election represents a sacred spiritual endeavor, not a popularity contest or a political exercise.
For the delegates, united in prayer and in purpose, business continues as usual. They consult on community building, on social and economic development projects for the poor and underprivileged around the globe, on the education of the children and youth. They encourage others in their success and struggles, crisis and victories. They focus on the work of Baha’is everywhere, making the world a better place for all.
And then comes day two — the announcement of the nine members of the Universal House of Justice. Once again, a beautiful silence envelops the Haifa convention center, and the chairperson of the session reads out the names of the elected members.
One by one, with heads bowed down, as if by the heavy responsibility they have been asked to accept, the members of the Universal House of Justice take the stage. A prayerful silence fills the convention center, together with a palpable feeling of love in the air — until once again, we hear the last name called, and the last member arrives on stage. Then and only then, the delegates burst out in a standing ovation.
For Baha’is, election to an administrative body does not mean that individual has attained a higher station – it means they have been asked to selflessly and humbly serve humanity. So then, spontaneously, out of nowhere, softly, and reverently, someone starts to sing a short prayer, and the delegates join in. In their voices we all hear unconditional love, respect, and the utmost reverence for the nine men who will carry the responsibility of the Baha’i world on their shoulders.
With the conclusion of the prayer, the member of the newly elected House of Justice who received the most votes says a few short words, and asks the delegates to keep them in their prayers so that they may fulfill their duty… and then they simply walk off stage, and get to work.
Never in my life would I have thought an election could be a thing of beauty. But this was indeed a thing of beauty, and of hope, which in turn engenders hope for all humanity.
Time and time again, I have been told that such an election would only be possible in a “small” religious community. A friend once summed it up as “People are just too power-hungry”. But after witnessing the Baha’i election in action, with delegates from the entire world, with each member of its faith involved from the grassroots level, I can’t help but wonder — What would happen if the nations of the world adopted the electoral process of the Baha’i Faith?