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 August 2005 Feature
Carolyn Sheahan is a staff manager in ASTM International’s Technical Committee Operations division.

Managing the ASTM Balloting Process
and Handling Negative Votes

The ASTM balloting system and the handling of negative votes are at the heart of ASTM standards development and are two of the most complex processes that Society members face. Over the next few pages, you will find a breakout of each step of the process, including a description of the electronic balloting system in place to assist with this responsibility.

The Balloting Process

One of the terms that is often used to describe the ASTM balloting process is “rigorous,” and this is a result of the multi-level review that each work item, whether a new draft or an action on an existing standard, must undergo to be approved and published as an ASTM standard. This review consists of three levels of technical scrutiny: subcommittee and main committee ballot and Society Review. Each of these stages can occur separately or on a single concurrent ballot, depending on the proposed standards action. The goal of this system is to create a balance between timely exposure of the work item and a thorough technical review.

Within all ballots, members are given the opportunity to vote negatively or affirmatively, or to abstain. Comments are optional for affirmative and abstaining votes, but must accompany negative votes. To shed some light on just how vital this process is, during 2004, 21,543 member comments were cast on a total of 1,295 sub- and main committee ballots issued. This dynamic framework ensures that only the most technically sound information will move forward. The process has stood the test of time and served consumers, industry and government well throughout the 107-year history of ASTM.

Subcommittee Balloting

The development of an initial ASTM work product generally occurs at the task group level. During this phase, an electronic work item is registered and displayed on a public section of the ASTM Web site showing the scope and timing of the effort. Following this drafting stage, the formal balloting process begins. The first level of review comes from the group that originates the ballot item, the subcommittee with jurisdiction over the work product. All new standards and major revisions to existing standards must undergo at least one subcommittee ballot cycle before moving forward. These ballots are authorized in one of two ways: by the subcommittee chair, or by motion at a subcommittee meeting. The subcommittee level is where the initial review of the item occurs and where the membership is generally most knowledgeable in the topic at hand. At this stage, authors learn very quickly whether their proposal is acceptable to colleagues or if it needs additional work.

In order for a subcommittee ballot to be valid, two statistical requirements must be met: at least 60 percent of voting members must return ballot responses and a two-thirds affirmative rate must be achieved. The affirmative rate statistic captures the subcommittee’s confidence in the ballot item by determining how many affirmative votes were cast, out of the total of both negative and affirmative votes on the document. Abstentions are not included in this tally. These requirements ensure that a majority of members have reviewed and support the ballot item. All negatives votes cast on a ballot item must be considered by the subcommittee, a concept we will cover later in this article.

Main Committee Balloting/Society Review

The next balloting phase is the main committee and ASTM Society Review, levels that occur simultaneously. This review period allows both the full membership of the committee and the entire Society membership an opportunity to review the ballot item. The ASTM Web site contains listings of all main committee ballot actions under consideration; Society members have the opportunity to request any of these ballot items for vote and comment.

Main committee ballots are much like subcommittee ballots, with a few marked differences. All items having successfully completed the subcommittee balloting phase are submitted for main committee ballot. Additional concurrent ballot items may be issued for simultaneous sub- and main committee review when authorized by the main committee chair, following approval at a subcommittee meeting or by the subcommittee chair. Validity is again dependent on two statistical requirements: the 60-percent return rate and an affirmative rate of 90 percent. The affirmative rate is significantly higher at this level because a main committee ballot is the final level of committee review and confidence in the item should be higher. Negative votes cast by both main committee and Society members must be considered. They are addressed first by the subcommittee originating the item and then by the main committee.

Electronic Balloting System

In order to make ballots accessible and convenient, an electronic balloting system is available through the ASTM Web site. All society members receive a nine-digit member number that provides access to the Members Only section of the site. This area contains information specific to each member’s technical committees, including a Ballots link containing current and past main and subcommittee ballots and related closing reports.

To ensure members are aware of open ballots, electronic notifications are sent via e-mail to all involved committee members on the day a ballot is issued. This notice contains the ballot designation, for example, E30(05-01), its opening and closing date, and a Web link to the Members Only login page for access. Within each ballot item, five voting choices are available. All ballots are required to be open at least 30 days, and the closing date is critical to remember. Any votes, particularly negative votes, received after this date are not included in the final ballot results and are forwarded to the subcommittee for information only; resolution is not required.

ASTM generates ballot results and summarizes them in an electronic closing report, available in the Ballots section of the Members Only pages, approximately one week after the ballot closing date. This report contains all necessary item information, including the return and percent affirmative rates, the number of affirmative, negative and abstaining votes cast and the names of all negative voters and commenters. The full text of all negative votes and comments received for each item is also now included in these reports, a new feature developed this year. These comments can be viewed simply by clicking on the voter’s name, which appears as a link within the report.

Handling Negative Votes

The next phase of the ASTM balloting process, the handling of negative votes, comes after voting has concluded and the ballot is closed. According to section 11.3.1 of the ASTM regulations, all comments and negative votes “shall be considered.” This consideration phase is critical, particularly because of the consequence that negative votes carry; a single negative prevents a ballot item from moving forward in the balloting process until resolved. The absolute requirement for due consideration of dissenting views is the cornerstone of the ASTM consensus process and the force that molds draft standards into finished products of international caliber. Given that negative votes have such impact, the ASTM regulations provide specific instructions about their deliberation. Communication, consideration and documentation are key steps in this process.

Communication is essential in the standardization process because of the nature of the task. The creation of a technical document requires an exchange of ideas and collaboration, so a dialogue between document authors and subcommittee members is necessary. The following are a few suggestions that facilitate this dialogue.

Cover Letters: Each ballot item must be preceded by a brief cover letter describing its contents and the reason for its proposal. The inclusion of a subcommittee contact for the item is also a good idea. In many cases, the ballot is the first opportunity for the membership to view the item, and a well-written cover letter goes far in providing clarification and avoiding negative votes.

Contact with Negative Voters: Coordination with negative voters is one of the most fundamental and probably one of the most overlooked steps in handling negative votes. Simple clarification of the ballot item communicated through a phone call or e-mail can often result in the resolution and withdrawal of a negative vote, which saves a number of additional procedural steps. This contact can also serve as the starting point for discussion and negotiation, also leading to a potential withdrawal. At the very least, contact with the negative voter clarifies the concerns of the voter and avoids wasted meeting time trying to tease out those concerns.

Meeting Agenda and Minutes: Appropriate notification should be provided as to when negative votes are scheduled to be taken up at the subcommittee meeting; this can be accomplished through a meeting agenda. Minutes documenting the meeting action should include the discussion and resolution of each negative addressed. The timing for meeting agenda and minutes submission is contained in each technical committee’s bylaws. Agendas and minutes are posted within the ASTM Members Only section when received.

All negative votes must be considered and these can be resolved in six different ways: as persuasive, withdrawn, withdrawn with editorial changes, not persuasive, not related, and previously considered. All relevant action on negative votes is taken up at a meeting or through a ballot.

Persuasive: Finding a negative persuasive withdraws the item from ballot. This resolution means the ballot item is taken out of consideration until submitted on a future ballot. A negative can be found persuasive if no one makes a motion to find it not persuasive, or if a not-persuasive motion fails to receive the necessary two-thirds affirmative vote of support.

Withdrawn: A negative vote can be withdrawn at any time by the person who cast it, either verbally or in writing. No formal motion is required for this resolution.

Withdrawn with Editorial Changes: This resolution is identical to the above but also includes editorial changes to the document. Editorial changes include typographical or grammatical errors and may be made during the final review of the ballot item, prior to publication.

Not Persuasive: A motion to find a negative not persuasive is necessary to determine that a negative is not valid. This motion, including a rationale that addresses each of the negative voter’s concerns, must be made and seconded. At least two-thirds of the voting members on the subcommittee must vote affirmatively to pass the motion. If the negative occurs on a subcommittee ballot, only the subcommittee must pass the motion. If it occurs on a main committee ballot or Society Review, the motion must pass in both the subcommittee and main committee.

Not Related: This resolution, like that of not persuasive, requires a seconded motion and a rationale, followed by a two-thirds affirmative vote. A not-related resolution is used when the negative comment addresses an issue(s) other than those included in the balloted item. For example, this resolution might be used when a negative addresses a section of a standard that is not included in the ballot item, or if it addresses a topic area completely unrelated to the ballot item.

Previously Considered: A previously considered resolution is used when the negative comment addresses an issue that was already considered through a previous, successful not-persuasive resolution. Required documentation for this resolution includes the minutes from a previous meeting that detail the previously considered not-persuasive rationale and the subsequent votes passing this resolution.

Care should be taken when using both the not-related and previously considered resolutions because each requires absolute certainty about the negative’s assertions. If there is a chance a voter’s concerns might not be completely unrelated to the ballot item or completely considered in the past, a resolution of not persuasive is more appropriate.

Documenting the discussion of negative votes and their resolutions is the final critical step in the balloting process because it relays the committee’s decisions and actions to the world beyond those members present at the meeting. There are two major items of documentation that must be prepared when handling negative votes. The first is the negative resolution form (only for main committee negative votes), which is the ASTM record of the resolution type, and related vote counts and rationales, if applicable. The second is the meeting minutes, which are the committee record of all of the resolution information that also serves to document any supplemental discussion and decisions reached. Correspondence, including discussion of negatives with voters and any written statements of withdrawals, are also important to keep on hand until a standard has been approved.

The final step before approval of a ballot item is the COS review phase. COS is the Committee on Standards, a standing committee of the ASTM board of directors consisting of nine ASTM members from various technical committees, as well as the board chair. According to Section 14.1 of the ASTM regulations, “COS shall determine, on behalf of the Society, whether the procedural requirements of the Society have been satisfied.” To do this, COS members review all committee not-persuasive, not-related and previously considered resolutions and rationales to ensure that the balloting process was facilitated properly and all negative votes cast were afforded due process. If additional information is required, the relevant subcommittee and committee minutes are reviewed. Following a successful completion of this phase, the ballot item achieves final approval and publication.

ASTM currently has a portfolio of over 11,000 standards approved through this multi-level consensus process, with 209 new standards approved in 2004 alone. This is a reflection of the continued hard work and dedication of ASTM members through both ballot responses and meeting participation. This commitment continues to ensure that high-quality ASTM standards are developed for the world to use. //

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