I thought it would be interesting (with my psephological hat on) to have a look at the full returns from the recent General Synod elections, to see whether I could pick up any interesting insights on the voting patterns. The full returns are the rather long pieces of paper (handily normally produced on a spreadsheet for easy consumption) that help explain all the transfers and quotas that are used in the STV election system that the Church of England utilises for its elections. For a worked example, see here on the fabulously wonderful Elections Ireland website.
Just a question of downloading the necessary information from the Church of England website I thought. After all, in every single country in the world where STV is used for elections, the full return is a publicly available document allowing complete transparency of the electoral system. Obviously the Church of England with its justice hat on would be at the fore-front of keeping things as open as possible.
Oh how wrong I was.
I began with one diocese (because I was interested in the specific voting patterns there for one particular house). Having failed to find anything on the Church of England website I emailed the Communications Director of that Diocese (an obvious place to start you might think). The Comms Director referred me to the Diocesan Registrar (who incidentally is the Returning Officer for the diocese) who himself referred me to someone in Church House in London. This person wasn’t able to help me and referred me back to the diocese.
I tried contacting the official national scrutineer, who was unable to help, referring me to Church Representation Rule 39(11) which reads,
A full return of the result of each election and of the result sheet shall be sent by the presiding officer within four working days of the declaration of the result to each candidate in the election, the Clerk to the General Synod and an election scrutineer appointed by the Business Committeeof the General Synod. The scrutineer shall have power within ten days of the declaration of the result to order a recount of the voting papers if in his opinion this might be material to the result of the election.
I was getting nowhere. It appeared that the only place where the full returns are officially published is on some wall in the respective Diocesan Office. Rule 39(12) reads,
The result sheet shall be publicly displayed in the diocesan office in such manner as the bishop may approve and at the General Synod office until the end of the first group of sessions of the new Synod as the Clerk to the General Synod may direct.
Notice that the rule doesn’t say shall only be publicly displayed in the diocesan office. There is nothing to stop the Bishop instructing his staff to make the results available in any other manner, it’s just that he has to make sure that there is a copy publicly displayed in his Diocesan Office. How hard would it be in the twenty first century to make this vital document easily available?
I decided to email every single Diocesan Registrar (the Diocesan Registrar is usually the Returning Officer for General Synod Elections and in any case should definitely have his/her finger on the pulse in this regard) and ask them for a copy of the full return from the election in both houses (laity and clergy) in their dioceses. I gave them 24 hours to get back to me, ample time I thought since the returns were already on a spreadsheet, the Registrar as Returning Officer would have them easily available and it would just be a matter of hitting the return button, attaching the file and pressing Send.
You know what’s coming don’t you?
The results of this experiment were astonishing. Of the 44 dioceses, 1 had the full returns (as a pdf – not quite as useful as a spreadsheet) on their website, 8 supplied the full return by email, 2 refused to, 6 didn’t have them available at a day’s notice for various reasons and a collosal 28 (that’s almost two-thirds of all dioceses) didn’t respond over the whole working day. Remember, this is the Diocesan Registrar I’m emailing – you would think they, or somone else, would pick up emails. It’s an important job.
Top marks to St Albans, Liverpool, Norwich and Sheffield who supplied the full return in a spreadsheet rather than a pdf – much more useful for analysis. Less than top marks to the Returning Officer who wouldn’t send me the full return at all, but at least he had the decency to get back to me. Bottom marks to the Returning Officer who asked under what authority I was requesting the returns. My reply was very simple – “I want to avoid having to drive up to your Diocesan Office to view them”. Don’t you read the rules? I have all authority to view them – the rules says so.
In many, many dioceses the returning officer was not the Registrar so I had to contact a second person. Worryingly, I got the impression from one or two Registrars who replied that they were unaware that Rule 39(2) designated them as Returning Officer unless they delegated that power elsewhere. Certainly at least one Registrar was unable to tell me who the Returning Officer for their diocese was!
Last but not least, I will spare the embarassment of publicly naming the Registrar (remember – he was the Returning Officer for the election in his diocese, a fact which he comfirmed to me via email) whose reply to my request for the full return was,
I do not have comprehensive results
You’re the Returning Officer. If you don’t have comprehensive results then who does?
Now, I don’t think there’s some kind of mass conspiracy amongst some Diocesan Registrars to keep us from knowing the results. I know of one diocese where all the clergy were emailed the full return so no problem there. It’s more an issue of transparency caused by sticking to the letter of the law rather than the spirit. If ordinary members of the Church can’t get hold of the full returns, how can the elections be deemed to be open and fair? In any state election, an inability to show the return would be simply unnaceptable.
How hard would it be for the Church of England to publish the full returns of every single diocese in one place (for example the Church of England website)? After all, rule 39(11) quoted above says that every single diocese has to send the full return to the Clerk of General Synod. It’s a very quick job (much quicker than emailing 44 Diocesan Registrars I can tell you) at that stage to put them all into one spreadsheet and post it on the CofE website. At the moment (since no-one is replying to two thirds of my emails), to get the same information I would have to jump into my car and drive round to every single Diocesan Office. That is if they would even let me see them. Think of the carbon…
Kudos to Church House. After two days I did eventually get a copy of every single full return – all attached separately in one email, a mixture of spreadsheets, pdfs and word documents. Some of the returns were missing which makes you wonder at what point, if at all, the dioceses were going to send them to the General Synod Secretary. The fact that I had to put them all together into one easy to read document (the ones that were made available) just proves my point for me.
Through a Glass Darkly? More like a jam jar bottom smeared with black treacle and then whitewashed just to make sure.
Try harder please Church of England.