June 1, 2021

Episcopal Elections (Essays on Ranked-Choice Voting: Chapter 2)

 Some time ago, I wrote an essay on ranked-choice voting that was intended to be the first of a series on what I consider a better way of voting when more than two candidates are involved. I had not intended to be writing about episcopal elections and ranked-choice voting, but, as it happens, the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh will be voting for a new bishop later this month, and I fear that our usual method of voting will not identify the person most desired by the deputies to the electing convention. Perhaps the Holy Spirit will be guiding the deputies, but I suspect that the Holy Spirit needs a little help.

On June 26, 2021, the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh will select the ninth Bishop of Pittsburgh. A slate of candidates was identified earlier this month by the Nominating Committee. I was pleased that three women were being offered for election: The Very Rev. Kim L. Coleman, The Rev. Ketlen A. Solak, and The Rev. Diana L. Wilcox. I have often said that I hoped the diocese would select a woman as its next bishop.

My enthusiasm about the slate of episcopal candidates was short-lived. Even before I had time to research the offerings of the Nominating Committee, two additional candidates advanced by means of petitions. Diocesan rules provided for additional candidates to be added in this fashion, but many in the diocese—including, I have reason to believe, at least some members of the Nominating Committee—were hoping that no more candidates would be forthcoming.

The added nominees are the well-known executive director of Forward Movement, The Rev. Canon Scott A. Gunn, and The Rev. Jeffrey D. Murph, the long-time rector of St. Thomas Memorial Church, the Episcopal church of the Pittsburgh Diocese in Oakmont, Pennsylvania. Although I am unfamiliar with the women nominated by the committee, I am quite familiar with the men nominated by petition and, at least in the abstract, consider them suitable candidates. On the other hand, I cannot shake the idea that there was uneasiness among some Pittsburgh Episcopalians over the prospect of being under the care and authority of a female bishop.

Episcopal Church elections for bishop divide voters into two categories—clergy and lay. Individual parishes are entitled to two or more lay deputies, depending upon the size of their congregations. Priests and deacons vote in the so-called clergy order, and laypersons vote in the lay order. Elections are by secret vote, and the election of a bishop requires a majority vote in both orders. Voting continues until a bishop is selected, but candidates often remove themselves from consideration if they perceive that their support is weak. Bishops are sometimes chosen in the first round of voting, but this is hardly the norm. Sometimes so many rounds of voting are needed that the election spills over into a second day.

It should not be surprising that clergy and laypersons tend to have different views of the candidates. Both groups are voting for someone who will set the tone for the diocese, but the clergy are, in a sense, voting for their future boss. The different orientations seldom lead to a first-round victory for anyone, and the perceptions of those voting in one order of the vote in the other order tend to have some influence on succeeding votes. Clergy have an intrinsic advantage in voting. They are surely not all of one mind, but each member of the order knows and can easily discuss the candidates with one another. This process tends to build consensus. Laypeople, coming as they are from many churches, lack the ability easily to discuss the relative strengths of the proposed bishops.

Because the election of Pittsburgh’s seventh bishop was such a disaster—the winning candidate, Robert Duncan, eventually left The Episcopal Church and took many whole parishes with him—nominations from the floor were eliminated in favor of nominations by petition far in advance of the election, and a meeting prior to convention day was established to facilitate discussion among all deputies, both clergy and lay. It is not clear that this really led to the election of the most desired candidate. Clergy had ample opportunities to confer; lay deputies did not.  (Read my analysis of that election, Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory: How Not to Elect a Bishop, and related posts.)

This brings us to the episcopal election scheduled for June 26. This event promises to have all the defects of the most recent election, as well as some unique new ones. To begin with, the meeting to discuss the candidates has not become a tradition, though the failure to encourage frank discussion limited the utility of the meeting anyway. Of greater significance, the convention to elect the next bishop will be held over Zoom. The most obvious deficiency of such a convention is that it discourages consultation even more than usual. Additionally, voting is to be done electronically, with results announced almost immediately and with one round of voting quickly following the previous one. This discourages not only consultation but also careful, individual discernment. The new rules will, however, get the whole matter over quickly.

Could ranked-choice voting (RCV) improve the diocesan convention voting in some way. I think so. In RCV, voters rank as many candidates as they like in order of preference. The system is sometimes described as instant-runoff voting. Instead of having multiple elections, the same votes are tabulated multiple times. In the first round, every first-place vote is counted. If a candidate earns more than 50% of the first-choice votes, that candidate is elected. If not, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and those who voted for that candidate have their second-choice votes tallied instead. This process continues until one candidate has a majority of the votes. (I described this system and offer a concrete example in “The People’s Choice (Round Two).”) A big advantage of RCV is its obviating the need for multiple rounds of voting to achieve a winner with a majority vote. The system is increasing popular in local elections. It is being used in the upcoming election for mayor of New York City, for example.

Of course, an episcopal election is complicated by the need to achieve majorities in both the lay and clergy orders. RCV could be used in a number of ways in this situation. For example, the two orders could vote using RCV.  If the same candidate wins in both orders—this is unlikely—a new bishop has been selected. If not, a conventional episcopal election could be conducted between the winner in each order or perhaps the top two vote-getters in each order. In the Pittsburgh case, this could result in a runoff election having two, three, or four candidates, with a four-candidate runoff being least likely. Alternatively, candidates achieving at least some threshold voting strength could be advanced to the runoff round. (Since the winner in each order must have at least 50% of the votes, a threshold of, say, 30% might be enough to advance to the next round.)

Why would such a system be desirable? First, it speeds up the voting process. This is not an insignificant advantage. Deputies sometimes leave the convention if it goes on too long. A more significant advantage is that everyone votes his or her conscience, at least initially, and is not influenced by other voters. In particular, laypeople cannot be influenced by what the clergy seem to want. (Clergy, on the other hand, seem largely impervious to lay desires.) Assuming the initial vote does not identify a winner, the resulting runoff voting will be among the candidates most desired by the two orders. Another advantage is that weak candidates are eliminated automatically; they can save themselves the embarrassment of having to remove themselves from the process.

In the upcoming Pittsburgh election, I am concerned that deputies who would like to elect a female bishop will split their votes among the three women, thereby giving an election advantage to the two male candidates. (It could also work the other way.) This is not to say that gender is the most important factor in the selection process, but it is surely a significant one.

It is too late to change how the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh votes on June 26. I hope that Episcopalians here and elsewhere will consider whether some form of RCV could help in the process of electing bishops. Here’s a suggestion, however, that informs but does not replace the conventional election process: Begin the convention with RCV votes in each order and announce the results, probably showing the votes at each stage of the tabulation process. Then, with a clearer idea of which voters favor which candidate, proceed as in a conventional election. I suspect that a bishop will be selected more quickly this way. The choice may even better reflect the true desires of the diocese (and the Holy Spirit).

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