Thursday, 20 June 2013

Elections Review Group - part 2

The second part of the Business Committee’s response to the Election Review Group’s report is in GS 1906. The group’s report itself is in GS 1901.

This second part considers

  • changing the electorate for the House of Laity; and
  • introducing an online facility for nominations and voting in respect of elections to the General Synod.

Unlike the topics in the first part, where the Business Committee is bringing draft legislation to Synod, the committee is initiating a debate to seek Synod’s views on whether any changes should be made, and if so what form the legislation should take.

Electorate for the House of Laity

At present General (and diocesan) Synod lay members are elected by lay members of deanery synods. The Bridge Commission in 1997 proposed instead a specially elected electoral college, although it should be noted that as they proposed the abolition of deanery synods in their present form they had to propose some alternative electorate. But General Synod at the time rejected both these proposals.

In 2011 Synod passed a motion asking for alternatives to be considered.

As a result the Election Review Group looked at five options. Apart from the fourth option (which nobody in the group supported), the same electorate would also be used for elections to diocesan synods.

  1. present system - all elected lay members of deanery synods
  2. electoral college - members to be elected by parishes at their annual meetings
  3. all elected lay members of PCCs
  4. all lay members of diocesan synods
  5. universal suffrage - all members of parish electoral rolls

The Group’s report (in GS 1901) lists the advantages and disadvantages of each.

The Business Committee’s preference is for an electoral college (option 2 above) and the motion before Synod asks for legislative proposals to be brought forward. But if Synod prefers another option it can amend (and pass) the motion.

If any changes to the present system are agreed they could not come into effect in time to be used in the 2015 elections to General (and diocesan) Synod, and it is likely that they would be first used in 2018 for diocesan synods and in 2020 for General Synod.

Online elections

At present elections to General Synod are almost entirely paper based. Although nominations can be submitted by fax they must be confirmed by submitting the paper original within three days of the closing date. Voting is by paper ballot. The Business Committee had been advised that it is technically feasible to conduct the whole process online. Email nominations could be in place in time for 2015, but electronic voting would take longer to put in place, and could not be used until 2020. The motion from the Business Committee will ask Synod to endorse these proposals.

Posted by Peter Owen on Thursday, 20 June 2013 at 4:32pm BST | TrackBack
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Categorised as: Church of England | General Synod

Did the business committee give any reasons why they preferred an electoral college to universal suffrage? I'm fairly sure everyone outside the Anglican corridors of power considers universal suffrage really obvious.

(And I can't help feeling this isn't the right century for debates about the merits of universal suffrage)

Posted by: Leon on Thursday, 20 June 2013 at 4:44pm BST

The tiny number of electors perhaps explains why the Southern Universities "elected" a synod member who strongly argued against the Women Bishops measure and then voted against it. The state got rid of rotten boroughs nearly two centuries ago.

Posted by: Helen on Friday, 21 June 2013 at 7:53am BST

"Did the business committee give any reasons why they preferred an electoral college"

The more opaque the mechanism, the easier it is to control the outcome and the less accountability there is. Electoral colleges are perfect for organisations that distrust democracy.

Posted by: Interested Observer on Friday, 21 June 2013 at 9:19am BST

I can't see any advantages to an electoral college, especially an electoral college over deanery synods. The point about deanery synods is that they do meet (cue jokes) and that means that the members have a chance to know a little bit about each other. A college which probably never met (since elections would likely be by post and then electronically) is hardly going to provide better accountability. It will just mean people vote with even less knowledge about who they are voting for.

Similar arguments apply against universal suffrage. The current indirect system does allow everyone on a parochial electoral roll to have an input, but only via their deanery synod representatives.

Posted by: Simon Kershaw on Friday, 21 June 2013 at 3:07pm BST

Totally agree with the foregoing.

Having regional electoral bodies that actually do meet encourages actual debate and deliberation, which is what we want and need.

And indeed an electoral college would be the death of accountability.

Posted by: Jeremy on Friday, 21 June 2013 at 4:15pm BST

Perhaps our Anglican readers outside England could post a comment explaining how the lay representatives on their governing body are elected/chosen/appointed. Do any of them use "universal suffrage"?

Posted by: Peter Owen on Friday, 21 June 2013 at 4:30pm BST

I'm not myself persuaded by the 'electoral college' idea, but the Business Committee do offer reasons: (1) that a number of key lay leaders such as churchwardens may not wish to commit also to Deanery or Diocesan Synod membership, thus making the latter bodies less representative of the laity than they might be. (2) if the electoral body is simply all those on the electoral roll then that might be perceived as quite a low level of commitment and parishes can differ wildly in how much they encourage/discourage folk to join the roll. I'm not persuaded by it, but it is a reasonable argument that deanery/diocesan synods are insufficiently representative but that electoral roll by itself might be too wide.

Happy to be challenged on this, but I wonder why those present and voting at Annual Parochial Church Meeting - who at least have demonstrated SOME commitment to the governance of the Church - might not be the right group?

Posted by: Philip Hobday on Friday, 21 June 2013 at 5:37pm BST

I am not sure 'rotten borough' is a fair description - 'anachronism' would be better. I believe these constituencies (declaring an interest - I am in one!) arose for two reasons. 1. Until relatively recently, clergy in historic positions connected with universities (such as chaplains / academics in a theology faculty) did not generally hold a Bishop's licence. They were excluded from the electorate for diocesan clergy for that reason. 2. There was some (I think sensible) desire to help incorporate academic theologians into the Synod.

Given that the first of these needs could be met otherwise (by transferring university clergy into the diocesan pool, for instance) it would probably be better for such separate representation to cease. There would be less guarantee that academic expertise would be available, though.

But to say these posts shouldn't exist because a particular holder doesn't vote in a certain way seems to me to be off the mark. (Is abolishing representation by those with whom one disagrees really democratic?) One tries to kick out through the ballot a representative with whom one disagrees, but once elected they are surely free to vote as they wish - until, of course, they are submitted to the judgment of the electorate.

Posted by: Philip Hobday on Friday, 21 June 2013 at 5:45pm BST

It's rather disappointing that GS1901 contains no proposals for doing anything to improve the completeness of the electoral rolls themselves. It makes little sense to talk about "universal suffrage" when only around 10% of the believing Anglicans in England are on the Church electoral rolls.

Posted by: Feria on Friday, 21 June 2013 at 9:44pm BST

Actually I didn't say that Philip. The result of the Southern Universities' voting system is curious, however, considering that all these universities presumably have equality policies in place. And since no-one seems to know for sure who the electorate is or anything about it except that it's tiny, "rotten borough" seems a fair analogy.

Posted by: Helen on Friday, 21 June 2013 at 10:35pm BST

I'm intrigued that you should say that the electoral roll does not reflect the number of believing Anglicans. It certainly reflects the number of those attending church. It is completely renewed in an open and public process every 5 years and no-one who wants to be included is left off.

Isn't it rather that the ER reflects the actual membership of the church more truly than any other method of counting?

Posted by: Erika Baker on Saturday, 22 June 2013 at 6:59am BST

On University representation, I used to be the Southern Universities rep (2000-2003). I do not see any case for these special constituencies, because under STV the electors would have the same clout if transferred into their diocesan constituency. So if (say) all the Oxford University voters voted within the Oxford diocesan constituency, then they could elect "one of their own" if they all voted for her/him. It would be necessary, I presume, to reconsider the size of those constituencies which had a significant influx of voters.

I would have put the same argument had I remained on GS one more session when Richard Burridge made one of the most offensive speeches I've ever read (quoting Niemoller, and therefore comparing the abolition of University constituencies to Nazi persecution) arguing in favour. The whole point of STV is that it makes special constituencies unnecessary and that point should have been made.

I also think that the definition of who is eligible to vote in these University constituencies is very slippery and probably open to all sorts of legal challenges. For instance what if someone is on long term unpaid leave from a part-time university job?

Finally, if you are a member of a university constituency you are allowed to opt whether to vote in the university constituency or in your diocese (assuming you hold a licence). While you can only exercise one vote, the way you can choose, which other people can't, is itself undemocratic.

There were university seats in parliament till 1948 (I think) so if the Church of England is only 65 years behind in abolishing university representation then that's quite good going. Lots of people have "theological expertise" and in any case I don't think that was really the original reason for these seats.

Posted by: Bernard Silverman on Saturday, 22 June 2013 at 9:43am BST

Now on electronic voting.

The idea that it would take seven years to institute electronic voting is ridiculous. I'd have thought that the right competent software company could do it in about seven months/weeks/days/minutes.

When I was on GS about ten years ago I suggested that GS itself should use electronic voting instead of walking through lobbies. The idea was pooh-poohed. Now, however, how does GS vote?

Posted by: Bernard Silverman on Saturday, 22 June 2013 at 9:51am BST

Erika: 'Feria, I'm intrigued that you should say that the electoral roll does not reflect the number of believing Anglicans. It certainly reflects the number of those attending church.'

That's exactly the problem. Most of the Anglicans in England only attend Church a couple of times a year, and quite a few don't attend at all. To some extent, that was built into the structure of the CofE from the start: remember "three times in the year, of which Easter to be one". But the frequency of attendance among believers has dropped dramatically in recent decades, which may suggest that we're getting something wrong in our ecclesiology and/or in our liturgy.

Either way, you wouldn't dream of suggesting that only regular frequenters of the public gallery at council meetings should be allowed to vote at secular local elections; so why suggest that only those who attend church regularly should be on the church electoral roll?

If you want numbers, one can get a very precise figure for the total number of Christians in England from the census data. Then you can multiply by the British Social Attitudes Survey figure for the proportion of Christians who are Church of England (less precise, because it's based on a smaller sample), and you've got a figure for the number of Anglicans in England. If I remember correctly, it comes out somewhere in the region of 20 million.

Posted by: Feria on Saturday, 22 June 2013 at 9:57am BST

I have been thinking about your comment and I'm not sure I agree.
In our political system everyone, whether politically active or not, has a vote.

There are many reasons why people do not attend church. But by asking for their name to be added to the Electoral Roll they are expressing a positive interest in it.

Any other process that was not based on self-selection would risk being very arbitrary. Do we count only people who attend church a minimum number of years? If so, what do we do about the long term ill? Do we count those who do not attend church but who are actively involved in what their church does in their local community? If not, we risk cutting ourselves off even more from our communities. Who would make the decisions?

With everything to do with faith I would rather trust people's own declarations than "in or out" definitions by others.

Posted by: Erika Baker on Sunday, 23 June 2013 at 9:26am BST

Given the disdain that people in the UK express towards the US system of electing their Presidents via electoral college, it's astounding that the Business Committee are arguing for such an oblique mechanism. It's the usual civil servant approach - "it's too difficult to administer, so we can't possibly recommend universal suffrage." The time has come for a reform that would change the CofE properly, with universal suffrage for the House of Laity (we already do it for Clergy) - and let's elect our bishops, too, just like they do in the rest of the Communion.

Posted by: Pete Broadbent on Sunday, 23 June 2013 at 10:32am BST

Dear Erika,

Well, what I'd do if I were a PCC electoral roll officer is something like the following:

- every three months or so, flick through the parish baptismal register to find baptized persons who have reached voting age in the preceding three month period;
- contact those persons in writing, to invite them to register to vote through the existing formal process (note: no changes in ecclesiastical law required);
- make it clear that, in the spirit of the existing law on church electoral registration, there would be no strings attached: no doctrine test, no minimum frequency of attendance at services, no pressure to proceed to confirmation;
- perhaps hold a registration event, with a nice buffet lunch, at which the actual registrations would take place.

(Since the voting age is less than 18, we'd have to be good and sure to get the safeguarding arrangements right.)

I didn't think of this procedure all by myself. We've been discussing on another thread the representation of universities on General Synod, and I essentially lifted this procedure from the way Cambridge University maintains the electoral roll known as the Senate: for "baptismal register" substitute "list of BA graduates"; for "doctrine test" substitute "exam"; for "services" substitute "discussions in the senate house"; for "confirmation" substitute "postgraduate study"; for "registration event" substitute "MA graduation".

Posted by: Feria on Sunday, 23 June 2013 at 2:47pm BST

thank you.
I assume that churches already encourage their young adult members to join the Electoral Roll.

What is the rationale behind inviting people to become voting members of the church who have not shown any interest in their church just because they were baptised 18 years previously and might still live in the parish?

Don't we want to make sure that all those who do feel close to church are given the opportunity to vote without adding those who aren't really bothered at all?
Do you not see danger in both extremes - including only real activists and including absolutely everyone whether they are interested or not?

Posted by: Erika Baker on Sunday, 23 June 2013 at 4:18pm BST

Dear Erika,

I'd make seven points in response to that...

Firstly: how do we know that the reason those young (and not-so-young: to avoid age discrimination, there should initially be retrospectivity in the mining of the baptismal registers that I proposed) people aren't in touch with the Church is a lack of interest, rather than that they're voting with their feet against our current ecclesiological and liturgical practices? The only way we'll ever find out for sure is to give them the opprtunity to vote with ballot papers rather than with their feet.

Secondly: it is not normal in a democracy for electoral registration to be conditional on showing a certain level of interest in public affairs. Apart from anything else, any such condition creates opportunities for the sort of arbitrary decisions about the dividing line that you were worrying about above.

Thirdly: we are an established church, not a private members' club. Our relationship with the state makes it especially incumbent on us to broaden the franchise as much as we possibly can.

Fourthly: if we're going to continue to practice infant baptism, I think we have to take it seriously as the point of entry into membership of the Church, not introduce additional hurdles that tend to render infant baptism redundant.

Fifthly: whatever we think about the merits or otherwise of the arguments, we ought to act in the spirit of the law. The law is clear: the condition for joining the church electoral roll is being baptised, not being "bothered".

Sixthly: we can look to the traditions of our Church. From 1558 to 1919, when we had direct rule from Westminster, the franchise wasn't dependent on turning up regularly at services, nor even on being baptised. [Incidentally, no-one's ever quite explained to me what was so terrible about direct rule from Westminster that we had to invent first the Church Assembly, then General Synod.] We currently have the dubious distinction of being the public body that narrowed the franchise over the course of the twentienth century, and I for one would like to lose that distinction.

Seventhly: if anyone really isn't keen on any involvement with the Church, they'll still have the option of ignoring the letter inviting them to register to vote, and no harm will be done.

Posted by: Feria on Sunday, 23 June 2013 at 8:45pm BST

thank you. That does make a lot of sense.
I am not yet 100% convinced. Because while people who are not political activists nevertheless are aware of what goes on in their country through papers, TV etc., those who never attend church have absolutely no idea of what we do in there.
They would not, on the whole, know about our ecclesiology, our music, our sermons and our practices and the only idea of church they are likely to have comes from the official pronouncements of the CoE and of passionate Christians lobbying in public for this, that or the other.

There is no real hurdle after baptism, after all. People are free to walk into any church and get involved and get themselves on the Electoral Roll.
We perceive it as a hurdle because they actually show very little interest in doing any of it.

I would feel happier about inviting those on the baptismal register to become involved in church and to get to know something about us, than to invite them to start off by exercising their voting rights.

Posted by: Erika Baker on Tuesday, 25 June 2013 at 10:02am BST

'Perhaps our Anglican readers outside England could post a comment explaining how the lay representatives on their governing body are elected/chosen/appointed. Do any of them use "universal suffrage"?'

Peter, in Canada our GS lay members are elected at diocesan synods. GS meets once every three years. In some dioceses (especially northern ones, where geography is enormous and meetings very expensive) diocesan synods are also very infrequent (once every two or three years). One advantage of this is that it means that the time required of a synod delegate is much less than in England, thus opening lay membership to a much broader group of people.

Our GS just passed an amendment to the canon on membership, stating that the number of diocesan delegates would be based on church attendance, averaged out over four Sundays of the year.

Hope this helps.

Posted by: Tim Chesterton on Wednesday, 10 July 2013 at 8:31pm BST
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