02/01/2013

Considering the Electoral Roll

The Church Electoral Roll is Part 1, Rule 1 of the 'Rules for the Representation of the Laity' because it is the foundation on which all the rest stands. For that reason we need to get it right.

The rules (for those who enjoy such things) are here (and downloadable here).

Legal challenge?
The Electoral Roll (ER) should be robust. It is important for its own sake that it be clear and reliable, and it important for all those elected to any role in the church that they stand on sound foundations.

Yet the ER is generally thought to be a weak point in the whole process. More than one person (including William Fittall) has raised the question of vulnerability to legal challenge if the ER is less than properly maintained.

I suspect the degree of risk of a legal challenge is small in reality. I don't know how many losing candidates for diocesan and General synod elections are litigious, nor how many such challenges there have been to date.

But I accept that one case is too many and that even the threat of a challenge can be expensive.

However the argument that there is a risk of legal challenge is not an argument for leaving things as they are - it is a compelling argument for making the ER consistently robust. And not for waiting around before dealing with the issue.

Vulnerabilities
The accuracy of the ER is vulnerable because:
  • Each parish is responsible for its own roll. It is improbable that every roll will be maintained to the highest standard.
  • Not all parish electoral roll officers are trained for this task. (I phrase it like this out of ignorance. I've never heard of any training being offered to ER officers - but I've led a sheltered life and have perhaps been unlucky. Either way, this adds to the probability that not all rolls are well maintained.)
  • People may be on more than one Roll. Rule !.4(b) says they must choose one place where they wish to vote or stand for election - but this is not easy to police and relies on the probity of the member. (And there doesn't immediately seem to be a mechanism for, or rules restricting, how such a member may later change their mind.)
  • Rule 1.9 (removing people from the ER) is not as easy to apply as might be wished. Death and becoming a member of the clergy (please don't give in to the temptation to equate the two) and written resignation are straightforward. But ceasing to live in the parish (and not attending for 6 months), and (for those who still live in the parish) simply not attending for 6 months (and not because they're sick) - depends greatly on how well the ER officer knows what's going on. In a larger parish, or one where there's high mobility, this may not be so easy. There seems to be no duty on the ER officer to make enquiries.
  • Rule 1.11 says an address is desirable, but not necessary. Which can only make the task of keeping the Roll accurate and up to date that much more difficult.
  • Rule 3 says there must be communication between 2 parishes when someone wishes to transfer from one ER to another. Again, I have no idea how often this happens, or doesn't happen. (It evidently hasn't happened in a couple of neighbouring parishes near me.)
Some immediate solutions present themselves:
  • Train all ER officers.
  • Place a duty on ER officers to confirm with each person on the roll that their entry is accurate and up to date, and to do so (in writing when necessary) with any member of the roll whenever there is a doubt.
  • Support the officers effectively.
  • Facilitate communication between parishes when people move (and are on more than one roll).
  • Require a physical address as a minimum (and request phone number / email etc. as standard) to enable communication to take place.
Rules of membership
It may also be that the basic rules of membership need to be revisited to reduce ambiguity, but I'm not convinced.

We have a system which encapsulates two models of the Church of England. First, the parochial: membership is open to any resident who declares themselves a member irrespective of actual attendance or other denominational allegiance. Second, gathered membership: open to any worshipper irrespective of where they live.

On top of this there needs to be the flexibility to cope with a mobile population.

Given these tensions I believe the rules have to be broad and inclusive.

If, as I think will be necessary for one member, one vote, there is a national database of members then some of these issues may be eased (giving each member a unique identifier, for example). On the other hand it may just transfer a proportion of the problems from the local to the national officers.

The greater problems are enforcement, and (to the best of my knowledge) support for local officers.

One member, one vote
But (and I'm really tempted to use capital letters) not one bit of this is an argument against changing the franchise. 

These are known weaknesses in the system that we have now. Therefore we ought to deal with them now.

To place the electoral roll as the foundation of synodical government, and then do no more than wring our hands over the cracks in that foundation is simply irresponsible.

If the law officers believe that there is a risk of legal challenge to the rules then they should initiate steps - now - to minimise that possibility.

An indirect electoral system may have disguised or limited the potential damage that ER weaknesses might cause, it may have reduced to some degree vulnerability to legal challenge, but that is no reason not to deal with the problems.

One member : One vote

3 comments:

  1. David Lamming3/1/13

    I agree that the church electoral roll needs to be 'robust' and that maintaining an accurate roll can be problematic for various reasons, one of which is the lack of any definition in the CRR of what constitutes 'habitual' attendance at public worship. Another factor is that inclusion on the roll is a matter of self-certification: if someone, aged 16+ and baptised, completes and signs a form of application for enrolment, declaring that he is a member of the C of E and that the answers he has given are true (including that he is resident in the parish, or that he has habitually attended public worship in the last 6 months) he is "entitled" to have his/her name entered on the roll. I considered these, and other issues, including the duties of the ERO, in my article in the Ecclesiastical Law Journal: (2006) 8 Ecc LJ 438-452.
    Re training, 2013 sees the six-yearly preparation of new rolls: it is to be hoped that all dioceses will use their websites to give appropriate guidance to PCCs/EROs on what is required.
    Another issue concerns the return of ER numbers to the secretary of the General Synod for the purpose of determining the number of lay representatives each diocese is entitled to on General Synod. This is proportionate to the number of total names on the diocesan rolls: see CRR rule 36(2). But since the repeal in 2004 of rule 36(3) there has been no proper mechanism for the return of ER numbers by dioceses and it seems that where figures are missing, a 'guesstimate' is made. This can lead to a diocese being over or under represented on the GS which, in the light of the recent close vote on women bishops, is a matter of real concern. It is to be hoped that the Business Committee will be proposing the reinstatement of rule 36(3), which links with the requirement in rule 4 for PCCs to provide each year, by 1st June, a certificate of the number of names on the roll as at the date of the APCM.

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  2. David,

    Thank you for these comments. They raise a number of points I hasn't addressed and, in the case of the returns, wasn't aware of.

    I'm afraid I don't have access to the ELJ - not being part of a university has its frustrations. (If you were willing to send a copy to paulbagshaw@gmail.com, I'd be very grateful.)

    If you don't mind I'll make your comment the basis of another blog, addressing each point in more detail than is possible here.

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  3. Hi Paul

    As a Durham alum you can get access to JStor; don't know if the ELJ is on there but it might be worth a look.

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