Staggered elections are elections where only some of the places in an elected body are up for election at the same time. For example, United States Senators have a six-year term, but they are not all elected at the same time. Rather, elections are held every two years for one-third of Senate seats.
Staggered elections have the effect of limiting control of a representative body by the body being represented, but can also minimize the impact of cumulative voting. Many companies use staggered elections as a tool to prevent takeover attempts. Some legislative bodies (most commonly upper houses) use staggered elections, as do some public bodies, such as the Securities and Exchange Commission.
A staggered board of directors or classified board is a prominent practice in US corporate law governing the board of directors of a company, corporation, or other organization, in which only a fraction (often one third) of the members of the board of directors is elected each time instead of en masse (where all directors have one-year terms). Each group of directors falls within a specified "class"--e.g., Class I, Class II, etc.--hence the use of the term "classified" board.
In publicly held companies, staggered boards have the effect of making hostile takeover attempts more difficult. When a board is staggered, hostile bidders must win more than one proxy fight at successive shareholder meetings in order to exercise control of the target firm. Particularly in combination with a poison pill, a staggered board that cannot be dismantled or evaded is one of the most potent takeover defenses available to U.S. companies.
In corporate cumulative voting systems, staggering has two basic effects: it makes it more difficult for a minority group to get directors elected, as the fewer directorships up for election requires a larger percent of the equity to win; and it makes takeover attempts less likely to succeed as it is harder to vote in a majority of new directors. Staggering may also however serve a more beneficial purpose, that is provide "institutional memory" -- continuity in the board of directors -- which may be significant for corporations with long-range projects and plans.
Institutional shareholders are increasingly calling for an end to staggered boards of directors--also called "declassifying" the boards. The Wall Street Journal reported in January 2007 that 2006 marked a key switch in the trend toward declassification or annual votes on all directors: more than half (55%) of the S&P 500 companies have declassified boards, compared with 47% in 2005.
12 of the 24 provincial legislatures have staggered elections:
Three of Australia's five State Legislative Councils use staggered elections:
27 of the State Senates in the United States have staggered elections: