How Should I Vote for General Synod?

Licensed clergy and lay Deanery Synod members across the country last week received their ballot papers and election addresses for the election of a new General Synod. Although hopefully not to the extent experienced by Labour Party members recently, they may also be receiving emails suggesting how they should vote in their diocese. This article is not asking how you should vote in terms of issues or personalities but how you should vote in terms of process.

Particularly for those new to voting in Synod elections and those in hotly contested dioceses, voting under the Single Transferable Vote can be quite a confusing and complex process. As is already being commented on, it is particularly strange in church elections to be told “NO CROSS should be used”. The problem is that a failure to understand how to use that process can impact the result. Already I’m aware of people saying they know the 3 or 4 candidates they are going to vote for. But even if there are only 3 or 4 seats to be filled that could be unwise. When there are more seats – here in London we have 11 – even just numbering as many candidates as there are seats can weaken the power of your vote.

The Simple Rule

The basic position is that set out on the guidance to voters:

You should continue to express preferences for as long as you are able to place successive candidates in order.

At the very least this means voting – in order of preference – for ALL those whose voices and votes you would be happy to have represent you in General Synod.

This can, and perhaps should, be extended even further to add preferences among those whose views you do not wish to support. This is because you think some of them are better than others. They will never get your vote at the expense of your preferred candidates. Some candidates you would not want will likely get elected and once all your preferred candidates are eliminated you can continue to have a say in the final rounds between those who are left. But only if you also rank those you would, ideally, not want to be elected. That may be driven by a positive assessment of Candidate A (“I fundamentally disagree with them on X so hope they won’t get elected but I think they will engage with others well on X and they will contribute well on Y and Z”) in which case vote for them after all your favoured candidates. Or it may be a negative assessment of Candidate B (“I find their views so far from what I think God is calling the church to that I do not want them on Synod”) in which case you can best secure that outcome not by opting out but by giving other candidates (even if not your ideal) a preference.

When it comes to filling the last seat, you may not be very impressed with any of the remaining candidates, but if you have refused to choose between them, someone else will make that decision for you.

Why vote for more candidates than can possibly be elected?

This is a common question based on the view that if there are only 3 seats there is no point giving more than 3 preferences, certainly not many more. If you read through the addresses and are struggling even to find enough candidates to fill all the seats why go beyond that number?

The simple answer is that you never know how many of your preferences could be counted. It could be only your first preference if they only get elected on the final round (in which case there was in one sense no point giving even a second preference). It could though, theoretically, be as many preferences as there are rounds or counts in determining the result. And it is impossible to tell in advance how many that will be. If your highest remaining preference in a round or count gets elected or is eliminated as the bottom candidate then you still have the chance to influence the next round. But only as long as there is a further preference on your paper to be transferred.

The reason for this is that your one (single) vote potentially has some value in every round as it is transferable to someone else. Hence Single Transferable Vote. As the rounds progress the value of your vote will diminish each time it contributes to electing someone. But it will still usually have some value left and so contribute to the result as long as there is another preference on your ballot paper. If your candidate is eliminated because they are bottom of the poll then your vote keeps all its value from that round for your next preference in the next round, if you state that preference.

So, to take one relatively simple example from the 2010 elections. In Coventry Clergy elections there were just 3 seats for which there were 8 candidates. There were however 6 rounds of counting. In that final round there were 3 candidates, 2 of whom got elected. Between them they had 46 first preference votes and for those voters who put them first even their second preference proved unimportant. But that means that it was the later preferences of 71 other voters (whose first, and perhaps second, third or fourth preferences were out of the race) that were important in round six. In fact, although this didn’t happen (and is very unlikely to occur), even a sixth preference could have come into play – if your preferences were in the order of elimination - despite the fact there were only 3 to be elected. Gloucester Laity also had to elect only 3 representatives but they had 11 candidates and so that ended up with 9 rounds – same number of seats, but more possible transfers.

Where there are many seats and a large number of candidates the determining of the result is even more prolonged and so expressing as many preferences as possible is even more important. Last time in London diocese among the laity there were 52 candidates for 10 places and the full number were not elected until the 47th count. South of the river the election was not quite as strongly contested or drawn out among the laity but it took 23 counts to elect 7 lay people from a list of 28. In these cases a significant number of electors were without influence in the closing stages because they had stopped expressing their preferences.

In summary – when deciding how many preferences to express, don’t be guided by the number of seats to be filled. What matters is the order of elimination and the number of counts it takes to fill the seats. In theory your vote could count something for many candidates - even four times more than the number of seats and almost as many as there are candidates on the paper.

So, How Should I Vote for General Synod?

Odd, and perhaps difficult as it might be to do this, the best policy is simply to follow the instructions on the ballot paper:

You should continue to express preferences for as long as you are able to place successive candidates in order.


A simple account – Making the Most Of Your Vote – appears on the CofE website.

For more detailed information about the system there is a guide “Explaining the Single Transferable Vote” relating it to CofE elections.

For those wanting to see the full breakdown of 2010 results and how votes transferred, Peter Ould collated an almost complete set on a spreadsheet.

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