George Austin votes ‘A’ and ‘B’

Media reports of delays in printing and distributing the voting papers for the June elections were all very well but they didn’t tell half the story. One reason for the experiment was claimed to be to encourage those who neglect to vote – an increasing percentage, especially in local and European elections – to make the effort. The flaw in that is that the postal vote is far more complicated than simply going to the polling booth.

In the Yorkshire and Humberside region, the Monster Raving Loonies seemed to be the only party missing from our postal voting list, though there were others of the Loony Left and Loony Right trying to climb on the European gravy train. ‘I suppose’, I thought, ‘I can waste my vote on one of them if I get really desperate.’ And desperation is the word for this simplification of our electoral process, certain as it is to dissuade even more from exercising their democratic right. Why? Let me explain if you come from districts not at this cusp of progress.

The ballot paper arrives and the envelope includes a list of instructions, an envelope A, an envelope B and a ballot paper divided into four quarters. The instructions tell me I must detach one quarter of the sheet and set it aside. The quarter next to it must also be detached leaving only the ballot paper. I have a single vote and I am to mark the ballot paper with an X in one square only.

So far so good. But then I am told I must place the ballot paper in envelope A, making sure the number on the reverse (next to a bar code) can be seen through the envelope window. One of the detached quarters is to be signed by someone who knows me as proof of my identity. This, together with envelope A, must be placed in envelope B, making sure it doesn’t obscure the window, which must show the barcode on the ballot paper.

So that’s it. No, wait – the first quarter I detached must also be placed in envelope B so that the address of the Local Returning Officer on the reverse can be seen through the window.

I read the instructions again to make sure I’ve got it right, but then make another discovery. The cross I will make is to be placed in the square ‘to the right of name of the party or individual candidate’ of my choice, and I suddenly realize I do not really have a democratic choice at all. Each of the party lists has a multiple choice of up to six candidates and I can only vote for the party.

But the main parties have as much variety in them as Catholics, liberals and Evangelicals within the Church So can this really be a free and fair election if someone else decides which shade of political opinion is to be given the preference?

I was tempted, for the first time in more than 50 years, not to vote at all as a protest. Otherwise I’d carefully do what I was told to do, hoping to get it right, then breathe a sigh of relief, have a brandy to settle my nerves, and wander up to the post box to mail it. And as I did so, I’d look with nostalgia at the village hall across the road where in less enlightened days I could have popped in, identified myself, collected a ballot paper, put in the X, and deposited the small, single, easily understood paper into the ballot box.

And remembering what was no longer possible, I might be so furious that I’d tear it all up and scatter it to the four winds, collecting a fine as a litter lout in the process.

Still, I do now understand why the Monster Raving Loony Party was not among the voting choices, as this would have meant a conflict of interest. For surely it was they who devised the whole scheme.

Now let’s enter fantasy land and see what use the Church of England might make of this. As a body it has always been in the forefront of democratic voting, and elections to the Lower House of Convocation have been by universal suffrage since 1283.

The introduction of the single transferable vote for the General Synod meant we were again in the vanguard in extending the democratic process. Being able to vote for first choice, second choice and so on as far as one wished meant that those elected really were the choice of all the electorate.

In fact in a Synod election I would always put in my 1 and 2, look for the person I least wanted to be elected and then work backwards until I had expressed a preference for every candidate. Cunning but totally democratic.

It is not usual for the State to be ahead of the Church in these matters, but my wicked thought is that its liberal establishment could learn from the State’s new system of voting, at least as it is for the European Parliament.

The effect of the STV voting system is that all shades of opinion have a voice, with the result that party considerations enter into the discussion process in the Synod, to the fury of such organizations as GRAS. After all, they might argue, why should orthodox Catholics and Evangelicals be allowed to foster disunity?

I recall at a York Synod I covered for New Directions that a member of the Archbishops’ Council made a passionate plea for a drastic reduction in membership. Her argument was that members could trust each other to see to it that all points of view were expressed, and in my report I commented that as she spoke I could see pigs flying round the rafters of the Conference Hall.

But just imagine – a voting paper with only three spaces in which to vote: one marked Catholic, another Evangelical, another Open Synod Group. Candidates would have to choose into which category they wished to appear, and voters could still use the transferable voting system, placing a 1 or a 2 or a 3 according to preference.

The Archbishops’ Council could appoint a small group, say elected representatives of Affirming Catholicism and of the Open Synod Group, together with a suitably open Evangelical, to decide the order of preference of the candidates in each group.

And so at one fell stroke all those debates on sex (never very edifying on the floor of the Synod), doctrine, women bishops, feminist language for God, ecumenical covenants with Wiccans, could be brought to a happy conclusion.

Be bloody, bold and resolute, Synod!

George Austin is still enfranchised!