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Saturday, July 3, 2010

We Have an Election

“We have an election!” Those were the words of outgoing General Assembly Moderator Bruce Reyes-Chow, as he announced the name of his successor, Elder Cynthia Bolbach of National Capital Presbytery.

It happened on the fourth ballot – rather quickly, actually, considering that there was an unusually large field of 6 candidates.

There was the usual variety of questions – with a few more lightweight, non-controversial questions than usual. It wasn’t until the last question, when a seminary advisory delegate asked the candidates to state, in a paragraph or less, what views they held on the marriage and civil unions issue, that the Assembly could really hear the candidates address a divisive issue.

Then, the Q&A time ran out, and the Assembly got down to voting.

The voting did not go well – for purely technical reasons. The Assembly uses an electronic keypad system to record the votes of the commissioners and delegates, and today’s voting was plagued by technical glitches. Most votes were recorded all right, but there seemed to be problems with a few dozen keypads each time. The overall numbers didn’t quite add up. Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons told the Assembly there should be 712 votes from commissioners if all are present, but the most that showed up on the screen were just over 650. There couldn’t possibly be that many absences, so it seems the system problems were pretty widespread.

Where I was sitting, in the section reserved for presbytery and synod staff, I was surrounded by fellow stated clerks. There was a lot of quiet consternation among our group. We know how important accurate vote counts are, and we also know the virtual impossibility of trying to conduct General Assembly voting by a manual method, such as counting hands or paper ballots. Sure, it could be done, but we’d be up half the night trying to conduct multiple votes on a field of 6 candidates.

A stated clerk sitting near me asked, “Why doesn’t someone just move to adjourn?” His point was that this is what the motion to adjourn is for: to call a halt to proceedings in order to buy time to fix a problem that’s come up. Such a motion would have presented its own set of problems – it would have played havoc with the subsequent scheduling, and could even have resulted in a Moderator’s Reception tomorrow afternoon that would have no Moderator to host it – but I have to admit his suggestion did have a certain logic to it.

Cynthia started out with twice as many votes as any other candidate, and her numbers continued to rise steadily, so I’m sure she would have been the eventual victor, regardless. But, even so, we may never know how accurate the announced vote count was.

At one point after her installation, our new Moderator quipped that she hoped people wouldn’t think her middle name is “Florida” – a reference to the disputed Bush-Gore Presidential contest. A brave attempt to use humor to dispel an emotionally-charged situation.

I don’t imagine the Office of the General Assembly Staff, nor the employees of the company that provides the electronic voting system, will get much of a 4th of July holiday. They’ll need to get right to work testing and re-testing the system, until they’re 100% sure the glitches have been eliminated. They do have a few days to get it right: the Assembly will be going into a couple of days of committee work, before reconvening in plenary session on Wednesday.

Tomorrow morning is the big, stadium-style communion service, followed by the Moderator’s reception, barbecue and fireworks in the late afternoon. Those events take place on Nicollet Island in the Mississippi (the fireworks are the city’s 4th of July display). Heavy thunderstorms are forecast for earlier in the day, so we’ll hope for the best.

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