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