In a piece originally published in the Municipal Journal, LGIU’s Ingrid Koehler argues for the vaccination of poll workers organising and volunteering at May’s local elections.
‘Without question, poll workers are essential workers. Period. This is a no brainer, black and white. There’s no question they would be deemed to be essential workers.’ That’s what Phil Murphy, the Governor of New Jersey, USA said when asked if poll workers there should receive the COVID-19 vaccine earlier in February in advance of May municipal elections.
At LGIU, we agree. From the people who plan and organise the elections who are now having to go into work to prepare for May elections, to those who staff the polls on the day, to the army of volunteer workers who count the ballots over a several day period – they are all essential workers. Essential workers who have to be close enough to be watched by count observers in indoor spaces during an airborne pandemic.
There is some merit in the apparent Government position to limiting ‘early’ vaccination to only a few professions. There is a simplicity and a clarity to having few exemptions to age-banded jabs. However, our democracy is important and nothing would emphasise that more than offering the COVID-19 vaccine to our democratic workers.
But simplicity has its limits. These may be the most complicated elections ever. We are holding two years’ worth of elections. Police and Crime Commissioner elections will be held everywhere alongside mayoral and council elections, parish and neighbourhood plan referenda across much of England. With both count venues and staff at a premium, counts will have to take place consecutively, meaning days of in-person contact. Even if, as we suspect, the caseload is significantly lower, this still poses a risk to our electoral workers, candidates and party activists.
In our January report, Free, Fair and Safe: 2021 Local Elections, we asked council leaders, chief executives and electoral heads about the May elections. Ninety-four per cent were very or somewhat concerned about the May poll. Of course, they were worried about how hard it would be to prepare in a pandemic. They also worried about the democratic legitimacy of the elections. They worried, too, about the safety of their staff, with one respondent saying, ‘I have a concern about our ability to hold a count safely over three days, with polling agents needing to be close enough to staff to properly observe the process. If the election goes ahead in May I would like to see key election staff given priority to vaccination. [In addition], only a limited number of staff in each local authority know how to work the election software and without them, we are sunk’.
If council staff are worried about the health of volunteer staff, those volunteers seem concerned, too. Eighty per cent of council chiefs were worried that they would not be able to obtain enough staff to run the elections. One electoral services manager told us, ‘We are finding it very difficult to staff the polling stations and count, let alone having reserves or “greeters” at the stations.’ Another council leader told us in confidence that they are investigating the possibility of ‘going to contract’ to ensure that they have enough electoral workers, as calling for staff volunteers is not likely to meet the quota. Offering the vaccine to volunteers, as we do for the vaccine centres, could give wary would-be volunteers the confidence to take their place at the poll or the count again this year.
In the same LGIU survey, council leaders and officers told us that while they would certainly welcome clarity from the Government, they need more funding. Other support would be vital, too – such as vaccination of key staff. Many in our survey called for a delay to the elections, not just because of the difficulty of preparing for them in a pandemic lockdown, but also because delaying the election to the autumn would mean that the vast majority of adults would have been offered the vaccine at this point.
A vaccination at this stage would vastly increase the safety and confidence of poll workers and reduce the likelihood of polls, counts or councillor induction becoming super-spreader events. Since the Government has decided that elections will go ahead before many adults in the general population can be vaccinated, we can at least minimise the risk by vaccinating election staff.
Electoral workers deserve our respect and admiration for the sacrifices they make every year at every election. But we should not be asking them to needlessly risk their lives nor sacrifice their peace of mind if we can avoid it. We can avoid this by offering them the vaccine.
This article was originally published in the Municipal Journal.