Should the RIBA president be elected by the RIBA Council or by the existing system of one member, one vote? The current debate has reawakened all the old arguments against mass elections. The cost of campaigning can be expensive, discouraging the less well-off from standing for office. A mass vote is more likely to favour a candidate who does not enjoy the support of those with whom they will be expected to work, and so is potentially disruptive to 'continuity'.Widespread elections tend to favour larger-than-life personalities, placing disproportionate importance on mediafriendliness and national reputation.
The first of these arguments is the most compelling, having a reassuring whiff of egalitarianism which counteracts the common-sense view that to drastically reduce the size of the electorate is a move towards elitism. But the cost of running an effective campaign pales into insignificance when pitted against the loss of earnings over two years of service. Realistically, as long as the position remains unpaid, the presidency is limited to those who have a private income or work for a practice which can afford to take the view that a close association with the RIBA president is ample compensation for the partial loss of a key member of the team.
The argument that a council-elected president will be less disruptive to continuity rests on the assumption that continuity is in short supply and is necessarily a good thing. But the institute has a director-general and numerous staff to safeguard its continuity, and it is the very fact that a presidential election represents change which makes it valuable and of interest to its members.
A mass vote may be more likely to vote in the 'personality'. Architects, like anybody else, will tend to favour the well known over the unknown. But this does not mean that they are casting an ill-considered vote.
They are, after all, electing a figurehead. A crucial part of the president's role is to represent the architectural world in dealings with the media, and a candidate who cannot capture the attention of the architectural constituency is unlikely to prove capable of developing a captive audience beyond the confines of the profession.