Monday, May 9, 2016

General Conference, Day -1 #UMCGC #UMC

So, how does one get elected to General Conference?

What follows is a deeply wonky description of the election process. If you just want to know what General Conference is like, there will be more of this tomorrow and on following days, so don't feel bad for skipping this post. In addition, some of what follows is unique to the North Georgia conference, but most of it is pretty universal.

The first thing you need to know is that we don't just vote once and then take the top x number of people. The process is more complicated than this. In fact, it starts with a committee that decides just how big General Conference is going to be.

That committee, the Commission on the General Conference, is tasked by the Book of Discipline with determining an appropriate size for the General Conference. The Discipline mandates that the size of General Conference must be between 600 and 1000 delegates, but it leaves a lot of discretion with the commission. In the past, the General Conference has tended toward the larger end of that limit, giving as many people as possible the chance to serve. But as travel costs have increased and cost-saving measures gain traction, there has been discussion about limiting the size of General Conference. In particular, as the General Conference looks toward it's 2024 meeting (in Manilla, Philippines) and 2028 (in Harare, Zimbabwe), the first General Conferences to occur outside the United States, those cost-cutting measures are becoming all the more important. Accordingly, the Commission on the General Conference set this year's General Conference at 864 delegates: as always, half clergy and half lay.

Once the size of the General Conference is set, each annual conference is allocated a certain number of delegates--an equal number of clergy and lay--depending on the size of its conference. This year, North Georgia was allotted 22 delegates to the General Conference: 11 clergy and 11 lay. Each conference is also allocated an equal number of delegates to the Jurisdictional Conference, plus alternates. Those elected to General Conference are also elected to Jurisdictional Conference, so (for instance) in North Georgia, we have 22 General Conference delegates and 44 Jurisdictional Conference delegates (plus 10 alternates). Clergy vote for clergy and laity vote for laity.

On the clergy side, in the weeks before annual conference, everybody organizes. Lists get passed around. Caucus groups take straw polls. There are any number of these groups: conservatives, progressives, clergywomen, young clergy, African-American clergy. Each group puts its list together. The more lists you appear on, the more likely you are to get elected. In North Georgia, rather than declare candidacy, every ordained elder and deacon is a candidate for election. This means that we have several hundred candidates. [I will note here that there is a movement to change the way we do elections in the next quadrennium. I am in strong support of this change.] Without a list to guide you, we'd go on for days. And what makes this so hard and take so long is that in order to be elected, a person must appear on half the valid ballots in the room, plus one. Just because you're in the top eleven on the first ballot doesn't mean that you'll get elected to General Conference.

With electronic voting, everybody's given a four-digit number. On the first ballot, with 11 spots, you vote for 11 people. Then, as people are elected, the number of people you vote for are reduced. Once the first 11 are elected, the process starts over for Jurisdictional Conference delegates (who also serve as reserves to General Conference), so there are once again 11 spots.

It's not easy to get to 50%+1! And the confusion that sometimes happens in these situations can lead to some shenanigans. For instance, some groups use strategic voting to prop up one candidate at a time and help him/her rise in the balloting. In order to do this, supposing there are say, 7 spots left, they will vote for one person on their list and six throw-away names (people who aren't in contention). This strategy creates artificial distance between the #1 and #2 person on the ballot and makes it look like there is momentum towards the top candidate, often pushing him or her toward election. You can tell folks are using this strategy when the list of results the Bishop is given to read at annual conference has a few names with multiple votes (i.e. those actually in contention) and several pages with people who only have one vote (i.e. throw-away votes). I will acknowledge that this process of throw-away votes feels awfully icky to me (that's a theological term, I think); I would even argue that it crosses boundaries of integrity.

It is a strange thing to hear your name read by the bishop . . . again, and again, and again. It is particularly strange to do so while sitting on the stage of annual conference, as I do as an associate secretary. I will admit being simultaneously impressed-with-myself (not a righteous emotion) and totally terrified.

I was elected on the 14th ballot. I also was elected (in an unrelated event) to the 14th spot in the delegation. That means that while I am part of the delegation, I will not sit as a member of the General Conference delegation, unless someone is absent. In fact, in our conference, the first two reserves (#12 and #13) have their expenses paid; the first reserve by the General Conference, and the second reserve by our annual conference. In other words, I was elected one spot too late to receive this benefit.

So you may be asking why I am bothering to go to General Conference if I am not one of our top 11, and if I do not have my way paid. You'd be asking a good question. That's the topic for tomorrow.

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