England & Wales Covid-19, Democracy, devolution and governance

Bolstering democracy in the Covid-19 era


Cllr Iain Malcolm, Leader of South Tyneside Council, outlines how councils in the UK might alter their electoral systems for a post-Covid world, in order for local elections to be safe and accessible to all.  Have a closer look at the issues in his long read on preparing for elections.  Also see our comprehensive look at elections in during a pandemic in our Democracy Deferred workstream. 

As this year’s electoral canvass gets underway, councils across the country will be making every attempt to make the process Covid-19 secure. We are urging residents to respond immediately to our communications in a bid to reduce the need for house calls and ensuring any visits are done so with the correct PPE and social distancing in place.

It begs the question as to what the ‘new norm’ might be for the electoral process. Councils throughout the UK have moved mountains to maintain democracy despite the current pandemic. In order to maintain executive functions, authorities have turned to technology with online meetings streamed via the internet so that communities can continue to engage with the democratic process. Local elections were cancelled for many in May 2020, denying constituents the right to have their say on who represents them.

Regrettably, it is extremely unlikely that life will be back to ‘normal’ by Spring 2021 – which is why it’s essential that, sooner rather than later, we start planning for how we need to do things differently during the May 2021 elections. There is a balance to strike so that we can do all we can to minimise the risk of spreading the virus whilst ensuring our residents can engage with the democratic process.

Whilst many enjoy the ‘ceremony’ of going out to vote, the current electoral system provides real challenges in a Covid-19 world. From using communal pens and voting booths to standing in queues in make-shift polling stations, voting in person is a high-risk activity. Even by enforcing mask-wearing, social distancing and regular cleansing routines, making the voting process fully safe is a tall order.

One of the core principles of democracy is that, whatever a person’s wealth, class, background or profession everyone’s vote carries the same weight. But we must acknowledge that this pandemic has changed that. This virus does discriminate. It affects certain groups more than others – the elderly, those from black and ethnic minority backgrounds and those with underlying conditions. For some, but not all, next year, and perhaps for some time after that, voting will retain an unavoidable element of risk. If we continue with our plan to stage elections as normal next year, we must ensure that the necessary measures are put in place to ensure these groups can participate in democracy as easily and confidently as any other citizen.

However, we cannot afford to wait; now is the time to identify and implement solutions. We need to watch and learn as other nations – not least, the United States, with its November presidential elections – grapple with similar challenges. It is imperative that we act quickly, to ensure that our electoral system is redesigned so that it can operate in a ‘Covid-19 secure’ way.

Covid-19 massively complicates the electoral process. But there are a range of risk-mitigating actions that we can take as local authorities to ensure that local elections can go ahead in the current context without democracy being too severely undermined. Increasing options for postal voting is one significant element of this. Without doubt, postal voting would minimise risks associated with polling stations and make it easier for self-isolating or anxious people to cast their votes.  We already know that it is a tried and tested system, with very little scope for abuse or fraud. As postal voters are statistically more likely to vote, increased uptake in postal voting could even lead to a higher than average turnout.

It won’t be straightforward to make the changes necessary to bolster democracy in the Covid-19 era, but elections teams up and down the country have proven time and time again that they are resilient and adaptable, including when they delivered a snap election late last year.

We must, however, get to work early to put in place the resources and mechanisms to keep both voters and elections staff safe – and we must acknowledge that there will be increased costs if we are to do this safely.

This year has seen more people than ever before relying on local government services – from shielding support to business advice. With so many more people aware of how local government affects them personally, we should be doing all we can to make the elections process an opportunity to build on this and increase local engagement.

Perhaps most importantly, there is also a clear capacity and willingness for citizens to adapt. In the face of this pandemic, we have changed almost every other process – from the way we shop for groceries to the way we socialise with friends – so minor changes to the electoral system would perhaps not be so unthinkable, especially if people were given adequate time and support to prepare for it.

With voter turnout relatively low at local elections, the last thing anybody wants is the further erosion of democratic engagement and participation. Whatever the solution is for democracy in a Covid-19 world we cannot and must not postpone. We cannot risk our democracy – it is critical that we act quickly to make local elections in a Covid-19 world safe and accessible to all.


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