Back when I worked in local government, my daughter asked me to explain my job to her. After listening to a long and detailed list, she told me I sounded like an elections party planner.
Running with that pretty accurate analogy, 6 May is a bumper party for hundreds of Returning Officers (ROs) and electoral administrators to plan. Many will organise several similar yet distinct parties in the same venues on the same day, and every registered elector across England, Scotland and Wales is invited. It’s a monumental event.
It was the right move last March to postpone the May 2020 polls, but the resulting combination of two years’ worth of polls make these the most complex elections in a generation. Planning and running them during an ongoing pandemic has only intensified that complexity.
Multiple contests will run in many areas, different voting systems will be in play and Wales even has two different franchises, with 16- and 17-year-olds and foreign nationals eligible to vote for the first time in Senedd polls. The scheduled Scottish Parliamentary and Senedd elections are rightly high-profile; while across England every layer of local government is represented, including the postponed London Mayoral and Greater London Authority polls.
Key electoral processes will run the same way they always do. Just like they did at the last big electoral event on 12 December 2019. But this polling day won’t look anything like that general election.
Every step of these polls is likely to take longer than electors, candidates, political parties and the media are used to. This doesn’t mean anything is untoward, only that RO’s and their teams are working within legally prescribed safety regulations and are rightly considering the health and wellbeing of everyone involved.
Many behind-the-scenes steps have already taken longer than usual for electoral administrators. Polling station staff have been much harder to recruit than usual, with many older or clinically vulnerable regular workers understandably being reluctant to take part this year.
A Cabinet Office initiative to find additional polling station staff has been welcomed by ROs, with over 3,500 people already sourced from the civil service, volunteering programmes and furloughed staff from sectors like aviation. This is a great help, but ROs will not know until 6.30am on 6 May just how many staff are able to work if positive tests or the need to self-isolate arises.
Training for polling staff has mostly moved online this year. It’s a welcome innovation for many, and a Covid-safe way to deliver the information polling clerks and presiding officers need to do a good job – especially those who are new to the role. No face-to-face training does however mean presiding officers are facing military-precision arrangements to pick up ballot boxes, ballot papers, sundries and voting booths.
A huge issue has been that the qualities which make a venue a great polling station mean many are already in use as Covid testing or vaccination centres. Mobile cabin units have been the answer in many cases, but there are question marks over their availability even now. Construction projects have been overrunning meaning cabins are in short supply, leaving election teams little time to arrange alternatives where orders cannot be fulfilled.
No one could accuse administrators of not looking wider for polling station venues, either. Voters will be casting ballots at Keith’s Discount Carpets in Wigston; Ian Shammon Car Showroom in Lincoln; Rebecca’s Hair Design in Ebbw Vale and the bar of the Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh as well as the usual church hall, community centres, schools and pubs.
Even if polling stations are unfamiliar this year, Covid-safety measures won’t be for anyone who has been to a supermarket or shop. Face coverings will be mandatory for everyone who can wear them, there’ll be socially distanced queuing, hand gel at entrances and exits, regular touchpoint cleaning and electors will be encouraged to bring their own pen or pencil. There may even be perspex screens.
Longer waits are likely, partly due to social distancing but also because of the number and variation of ballot papers being issued. Multiple ballot papers and voting systems will need to be issued and explained, electors will take longer in voting booths and none of this, quite rightly, can be rushed.
As I write, voter registration applications are still being processed. Approximately 90,000 citizens applied on 19 April, the final day of registration. All are being crosschecked to weed out anyone who is already registered and to identify incomplete applications for follow up. Valid applications will be processed, but time and resources are incredibly tight this year.
Postal vote applications have also closed. Scotland took the precaution of legislating for an earlier deadline date of 6 April, while the deadline in England and Wales was 20 April. A record high of 23% of voters in Scotland have opted for a postal vote, thankfully nothing like the 40+% some were predicting, which would have caused huge logistical challenges.
With four ballot papers not being uncommon, and even up to seven in one area, postal voters may receive multiple postal ballot packs. Their delivery and return relies on Royal Mail maintaining high service levels. If you have a postal vote, I’d urge you to send it back asap.
Proxy voting is available too of course. The deadline to apply is 5pm on 27 April, and emergency proxy voting will still be available up until 5pm on polling day itself. Legislation to allow an emergency proxy vote for coronavirus reasons is in place and will not require evidence or second-party verification. While Covid rates are low now, and I certainly hope it continues that way, the pressure this may put on election teams just can’t be predicted.
A word on those teams. They’ve arranged much of this election while working from home, a difficult task for many obvious reasons. Now back in the office, they’re are having to staying socially distanced and work in bubbles to reduce the risk of the whole team having to self-isolate at a crucial stage of the process. Losing electoral process and legislative knowledge on the ground is a huge potential risk.
Risk minimisation also extends to postal vote opening sessions, verification and counts. Political candidates, agents and their appointed observers are going to need to be understanding and trust in the processes and people running them like never before.
With the worry of creating super-spreader events, counts – which will run over multiple days in many areas – will have strict Covid-safety measures in place. Attendee numbers will inevitably be limited, and staff numbers reduced, even where larger or multiple venues have been booked.
There’ll be no crowding round count tables to observe every ballot paper as it’s sorted and counted. Social distancing will be enforced between every member of count staff and every observer, and there may be perspex screens between them. Counters will have to take regular breaks to clean their hands, and differing combinations of ballot papers and voting systems will lengthen every process.
With council seats often won by a handful of votes, doubtful ballot adjudication is particularly crucial. This cannot be carried out in close quarters as usual, and ROs will use projectors or similar to make the process as transparent as possible. A lot of thought is going in to making sure these processes are truly transparent, as they should be, despite the challenges posed.
Counts are scheduled to run from 10pm on polling day, across the weekend and even into Monday 10 May. Where an election is held over a wider area and multiple authorities – Police and Crime Commissioner and Combined Authority Mayoral, Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, plus London Mayoral and Greater London Authority – this requires joint or simultaneous counts. As I keep stressing, everything will take longer, but accurate is better than fast.
On a final note, and bringing the analogy back for the finale, big parties need big budgets. The extra money made available for these polls has been welcome. Whether it will be enough is not yet clear. Costs are still being incurred and last-minute changes made due to circumstances out of RO and election teams’ control.
There will be many lessons to learn from these elections for everyone involved. I just hope that when the party guests have all gone home, electoral administrators can tidy up, have a well-earned sit down and reflect positively on what they have achieved under exceptional circumstances. And be thanked by us all for what they have done.