This article was first published in the MJ, 14th March.
There has been so much going on in British politics recently it is easy to forget we are already in the countdown for May’s local elections with only seven weeks left to go.
As Peter Stanyon of the Association of Electoral Administrators told us at the LGiU: ‘We are fortunate in the UK that electors and candidates alike can take the voting, counting and declaration process for granted.’
But this doesn’t just happen. The security British voters feel around their polls is testament to the dedication and hard work of council workers across the country. Elections are a bewilderingly complex logistical exercise with thousands of moving pieces, any of which can (and sometimes do) go wrong.
This year we’re throwing a pretty big extra complication into the mix with the introduction of compulsory voter ID. Most of the discussion around this has focused on whether it is necessary in the first place – there’s no real evidence of widespread voter impersonation in UK elections; or on whether it will disenfranchise people, more than two million voters are estimated not to have appropriate ID and only 29,000 of those have applied for voter authority certificates (the Government, to its credit, supplies a live tracker).
There has been less focus on the impact of voter ID on the smooth running of elections, though the Local Government Association has called for a delay in its implementation.
Even less attention has been paid to the impact on polling station staff. For the first time they will be faced with having to turn people away and not let them vote. Given that public awareness of these changes is low we are likely to have large numbers of very disgruntled non-voters.
At the LGiU we have sadly become used to offering personal safety training to candidates out on the campaign trail. Now for the first time we are looking at whether this should be extended to electoral workers.
Even at the better end of expectations we can expect difficulty and delay. But what level of disruption becomes problematic for the process as a whole?
If this seems like an excessively pessimistic analysis, we should remember these elections are taking place within a highly febrile context.
Over the last few months, we have seen increasingly heated and occasionally violent protests on a range of issues, including asylum seekers housed in hotels, low traffic neighbourhoods and drag queens performing in libraries.
There is no inherent connection between these issues and one could coherently be on different sides in relation to each of them. Nonetheless, they have become linked through a complex matrix of misinformation and conspiracy theories: broadly centred around the idea that shadowy global elites are seeking to control, displace and contain ‘ordinary’ people. There is increasing evidence this is stoked by organised far right groups.
So far, we have not seen this sort of activity extending to the electoral process but we should not be complacent about this. We know that public trust in democracy is declining; we have seen organised disruption of electoral processes in other long-established democracies, notably the US and there is a potential crossover from the conspiracy theory that people will need to have a pass to leave 15-minute neighbourhoods to the voter ID question.
Councils, as always, will be in the frontline and it is essential both that we have clear, proactive communications around the electoral processes and we learn lessons we can apply forward to elections in 2024 and beyond.
It is easy to imagine we are immune from significant electoral disruption, but voter ID requirements could open a door to this. Preparing for the worst may be a better strategy than hoping for the best.