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Church elections expect high turnout

While Norwegian politicians gear up for local elections across the country on September 11-12, another ballot will be taking place at the same time – the Church of Norway elections, which will see contests for a number of positions in the established state church.

The Østre Porsgrunn Church before it was burned down. Interest in its restoration could lead to higher church election turnout. PHOTO: Den norske kirken

More than 3 million Norwegians have been sent their voter cards for the elections. Participation is generally very low, but the decision to hold the elections at the same time as local council elections in 2009 saw turnout more than double from 4 percent to 10 percent of the eligible voters, who are registered church members over the age of 15.

Church election voters will elect both members of their local parish council (of which there are 1,280 in the country) and diocesan council, of which there is one for each of the 11 diocese in Norway. According to the law governing the church, parish councils “should have their attention directed at everything that can be done in order to awaken and nourish the Christian life in the parish,” with involves arranging “religious teaching, welfare work and church music.” The diocesan councils have a number of wider responsibilities, including appointing local priests and allocating government funds.

Response to terror increasing interest
Despite the traditionally problems around low turnout, one area where there has been a vibrant campaign this year has been Porsgrunn in Telemark, southern Norway, the town in which the historical Østre Porsgrunn church was burned down on April 11 this year. Many local residents are interested to see how the local landmark will be restored, and will have 16 candidates to choose from for the parish council. Oft-quoted elections expert Frank Aarebrot told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that it was “special” to see the church elections brought to life by “an artistic question” that “has nothing to do with the Christian faith.” Nonetheless, a local church council member, Ole Johnny Dale, stressed that “much of the reason [for the increased interest] is also the church’s role after the terrorist attacks.”

The Dean of Ålesund, Sverre Klemmetsby, also told NRK that he believed the church’s importance during and after the Oslo bombing and Utøya shootings will lead to better engagement in the upcoming elections. “Many have seen the church’s value during these times, I am completely convinced of that,” he said.

Membership confusion
As in other elections, there are also mistakes about voter registration in the church ballot. Brønnøysund Register Centre, which holds a number of the country’s national registers, is responsible with the church for maintaining the membership list. Nonetheless, 25,000 people have reported being wrongly included in this election, with 5,500 actual members not receiving their cards as expected. One non-member who was included is Tom Øyvind Hogstad, who is not baptized, confirmed or a member of the church but received a voter card for the elections this year despite telling the church he was not a member in 2009, when he also received a voter card.  “I think it is a little strange that they cannot manage to keep better control over their members’ list than this,” Hogstad concluded when speaking to NRK. The leader of the Norwegian Humanist Association, Jens Brun-Pedersen, went further, commenting that “it can be both humiliating and offensive to have to resign from a faith community one has never joined.” Other religious or life stance groups like the Humanist Association do not receive state funding for members that are also registered with the state church.

The church’s director of communication and IT, Trude Evenshaug, responded by pointing to the fact that only a few people were affected compared to the large number of members involved in the election process, although she stressed that she was “grateful that non-members that have received voter cards have informed us.” She also confirmed that the church was looking into why those who resigned in 2009 were still receiving election communications, adding that the way the system at Brønnøysund had been set up had been against the church’s wishes.

Views and News from Norway/Aled-Dilwyn Fisher
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