Can we hold free, fair and safe local elections in May?

Timing is everything

The Local Government Information Unit (LGIU) reveals that the majority of council officials are overwhelmingly concerned about their ability to hold local elections in May. More than two thirds (68%) suggest that an autumn timetable is more achievable. Our survey of 374 Chief Executives (who are often returning officers), Democratic Services Officers and Council Leaders is the most comprehensive survey of council officials across England on the 2021 Local Elections. It finds that their greatest concerns are around preparing for May elections that would only later be postponed, their ability to recruit and train electoral workers and their ability to prepare under current conditions.

Worst possible scenario, but most expected scenario, is late change of plan, after much work and cost has been put into pursuing May election. Early certainty is always better than false optimism followed by late change of plan.  Council Chief Executive

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Dithering damages democracy

To maintain a democracy, we must have both the spirit and the will; both the statutory framework and the rule of law. Equally important, we must have confidence. We must have confidence that elections will be carried out freely, fairly, competently and safely. Creating and supporting the basis of that confidence is an army of administrators and volunteers, undertaking the seemingly dull but necessary work of preparing for and delivering elections, that minimum operating requirement of government by the people.

We are at a crucial point in time where confidence in elections is frayed by the smears and lies of a losing political party across the Atlantic. In March 2020, local elections scheduled for May 2020 were delayed by a year to be held alongside scheduled 2021 elections and by-elections. We are in a fevered moment, a dark winter of lockdown and disease, meanwhile councils across Great Britain are spending money, time and resources preparing for elections this May that they are still not sure will happen. This once-reliable fixture of local democracy feels increasingly buffeted and unsteady.

Despite calls from council leaders and administrators, the UK Government has failed to heed the warnings. Ministers have expressed their sympathy and understanding of the need to delay elections, but have yet to budge or make satisfactory changes to regulations which would make it easier to prepare. Nor have they provided full confidence that elections will definitely take place in May.

In response to an urgent question in the House of Commons on 13 January on the timing of local elections Cabinet Office Minister Chloe Smith said: “Safe and secure elections are the cornerstone of any democracy and parliament’s decision, as set out in primary legislation, is that these polls should go ahead in May.”  But she also added: “Given the position, however, we are, as the Prime Minister set out last week, keeping this position under review.”

On Wednesday 20 January, 2021 the Telegraph reported that Prime Minister Boris Johnson was committed to a May date, with ‘plans’ to ease lockdown restrictions in time for campaigning. By Friday 22 January, Guido Fawkes, the inveterate parliamentary gossip, was reporting that it may not be so definite.

“Despite a report this week claiming Boris has decided the local elections should go ahead as planned in May, the plans aren’t concrete yet. On a Zoom call last night with 300 constituency chairmen, Boris told party organisers that he wants to go ahead with the elections in May “if we possibly can”. Another source said Boris directed his troops to continue working for a May election, though “obviously that’s not definite”, presumably resting on the case rate at the time and the vaccine roll-out.”

It will be a grave error not to act early and announce a delay now.  Council Leader

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What councils are telling us

Elections insiders report that this failure to clearly decide when elections will be or what support will be offered is “very frustrating for Returning Officers and elections teams.” This dithering and uncertainty is damaging to our democracy.

In the most comprehensive survey to date on this issue, we asked 678 English Chief Executives  (who are often returning officers), heads of Democratic Services and Council leaders their views on the scheduled May elections on 18 January 2021. By 22 January, three hundred and seventy-six (374) responded,  55% response rate. Answers came from 244 different local authorities in England, 71% of councils. This unusually high response rate is a reflection of the concern councils have about elections.  Here we share not just key findings, but quotes from council leaders, chief executive officers and electoral administrators where they tell us overwhelmingly that they’re concerned about the ability to hold safe, free and fair elections in May and that the best way that Government can help is to delay elections to a firm, later date – ideally October 2021.

Election preparations are underway now – Government’s attention seems to be focussed on 6th May with an optimistic view that all will be fine by then; this does not take account of the massive preparation – time, energy and logistics, risk assessments and planning going on now. Understandably some venue owners do not want to to give us access either to assess or to use their premises as polling stations, the people who fulfil roles as presiding officers and poll clerks do not want to commit to these roles in current circumstances – so – given the immutable date of the election we need to recruit and train more. Many returning officers  are considering whether they want to take the personal risk associated with the role in the current circumstances.

Chief Executive

What elections are planned?

In England, the 2021 local elections slated include over 150 local authority elections in hundreds of wards and divisions for both the delayed elections of 2020 and the scheduled elections of 2021 as well as:

  • Directly elected Mayors and Metro Mayor from 2020 and 2021
  • Parish Councils
  • By-elections
  • Neighborhood Plan referenda
  • 40 Police and crime commissioner posts

Every single eligible citizen in England is due to be an elector in 2021. All areas are holding Police and Crime commissioner elections, except for Greater Manchester and London where these powers rest with the directly elected mayor. Our survey shows that only a handful of councils are just holding these PCC elections, the vast majority are holding two or three other elections and in nearly 1 in 6 areas voters will be presented with five or six different ballots. Although it is certainly not beyond the wit of the electorate, this is complicated and requires a considerable amount of advance communication about what’s at stake.

This isn’t just about the sheer volume of decision making. It’s about choosing the people who will be deciding on vital services, dealing with social care in crisis, and making the tough choices as councils are struggling through an unprecedented financial crisis after a decade of unprecedented financial cuts. Local government is fundamentally about where people live and voters will be choosing the people who will help lead us to sustainable economic recovery as we emerge from the Covid crisis. These decisions are too important to risk a low turnout or disenfranchising voters.

An early decision is needed as we are currently spending non recoverable funds on this and essential staff resource that could be focused on other urgent work. Executive Director

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How worried are councils?

We asked councils how concerned they were about the possibility of holding elections in May. They are worried. Ninety-five percent of respondents were very or somewhat concerned about holding elections, with roughly two-thirds of all respondents very concerned.

graph of levels of concern

 

What concerns do you have about holding elections in May?

We asked what they were most concerned about, respondents could choose more than one answer:

  • 86% Preparing for May elections, only to have it later postponed.
  • 80% Ability to recruit and train electoral workers
  • 78% Ability to prepare under current conditions
  • 71% Disenfranchising voters with covid concerns
  • 70% Ability of candidates to campaign effectively
  • 69% Costs of running a Covid safe election

Other concerns they shared were:

  • Ability to obtain polling and count venues, which a number said were currently unavailable, use of schools is proving contentious, and some of these traditional venues are also being used as vaccination centres.
  • Safety of staff – and their own personal safety.
  • Worries about elections being potential super-spreader events and community impact.
  • Legal liability of Returning Officers

Some respondents also expressed a concern about councillors who have held on for at least an extra year or who have had to stand down. While they were understanding of the need to postpone elections, some felt that by-elections should carry on in May as planned regardless of when the other slate of elections are carried out.

We are having real difficulty securing venues for polling stations as those that are currently closed (ie church halls) are refusing to reopen to host a polling station. We will struggle for staff as many are retired and therefore older so will not wish to be in the public environment. We will struggle to find a venue for the count which is large enough for social distancing whilst maintaining the required number of count staff. Our usual venue (which is the largest available anyway) is currently being used as a covid vaccination centre and this will still be the case in May

Members’ Services Officer

Having had meetings with other authorities, everyone is extremely concerned that although the government are saying everything will be safe at the polling stations and the count, in theory this is a monumental expensive task to ensure all are Covid safe. Further, we are finding it very difficult to staff the polling stations and count, yet alone having reserves or “greeters” at the stations. Given this, it would be logical to defer until the Autumn to allow the vaccinations to filter through the public and to give them confidence in attending polling stations to vote. As it stands, we are only 5% up on postal applications, as we and the government want there to be as many as possible voting, there should be a deferment.

Electoral Services Manager

I have a concern about our ability to hold a count safely over 3 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 – only a limited number of staff in each LA know how to work the election software and without them we are sunk.

Electoral Administrator

Go for the end of July or October: don’t tempt fate with May only to have to call them off. I am really concerned about vulnerable candidates. Council Leader

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When should elections be held?

We asked councillors and officers when they thought elections should be held. Only 1 in 10 felt they should be carried out in May as scheduled. Over two-thirds believe they should be held in the autumn. Fifteen percent think they should be held in the summer and seven percent believe they should be held even later.

 

graph of preferences for timing of local elections

 

Delaying till Autumn would help both Government and LAs deliver better run and more secure polls. In addition if elections delayed core election staff could help with vaccine delivery especially using their local knowledge. Electoral administrator

I would not normally wish to see a delay but believe there are truly exceptional circumstances which will make it impossible to run an effective election this Spring or Summer. Council leader

Apparently all adults will have been offered the vaccine by September – so an October election date logically sounds ‘safe’. Why not wait five months to avoid all potential claims of disenfranchised electors or non-compliant/ poor delivery of election activities? Electoral administrator

Councils know how to run elections. We don’t need HMG to interfere in the process, but we do need them to give us the time and the tools to do our job and to build public confidence in save voting practices. Chief Executive

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How can the Government help?

Council leaders and officials say that the most important help that government could offer would be delaying elections to a later, but firm date (83%) and nearly two-thirds say that ring-fenced funding would be helpful. While, of course, councils always want more funding, pandemic elections are more expensive, councils are begging for more clarity around reimbursements for PCC elections, and local government leaders have been told that the extra cost of making elections Covid safe must come from the pandemic grant which local government has already said is not sufficient for the financial crisis.

  • Delay elections to firm later date – 83%
  • Provide additional ring-fenced funding – 64%
  • Support postal voting – 62%
  • National information campaigns – 46%
  • Direct support with preparation (PPE, training materials) – 45%
  • Support early voting – 24%
  • Direct support with obtaining venues – 23%

Other suggested support included:

  • Holding elections during school holidays so schools can be used as venues
  • Prioritising vaccinations for electoral staff, including temporary staff/volunteers.
  • Indemnifying Returning Officers

When the Minister says “we have been working closely with local councils to ensure the elections are safe, etc. …” I’d like to know how because the support they and the Electoral Commission have provided is, as usual, poor. There is little understanding of the difficulty of running a complex set of elections in any case, let alone with a covid backdrop. We will NOT get all the staff we need and we will be lucky to get the venues for polling and or counting. You can throw as much PPE at the polls as you like, if people do not want to volunteer to work, we can’t run the elections. Electoral Administrator

Why not postpone?

Local government is committed to democracy, but the overwhelming view from councils is that it is no longer possible to hold safe and open elections in May. The logistical challenges are formidable and there’s a real risk that we effectively disenfranchise millions of people who do not feel safe going to the polls. Jonathan Carr-West , Chief Executive LGIU

Councils are telling us loudly and clearly that they are not ready and that the monumental responsibility of preparing for elections in these conditions without adequate support or funding is just too much. Yes, many other countries have held elections during this pandemic. We now know a lot more about holding elections in a pandemic than we did last March.  Election experts such as Toby James, Professor Politics and Public Policy at the University of East Anglia have been watching elections around the world. (Listen to our LGIU podcast interview with him). He (and others) believe that given current conditions, we should not be demanding councils run elections in May.

Yes, those polities that have run elections during Covid have engendered substantial administrative reform to build in safety. the only changes parliament is now proposing, around proxies, actually make it more dangerous. the vaccine will not have reached poll workers by the time the election period starts, nor the majority of the population. Electoral Administrator

We know that elections can be safely run. And we also know that we are in the grips of a more contagious Covid-19 strain now than we were in 2020; vaccines are rolling out, but while that provides hope it also introduces further complexity. A clear lesson from the experience of others is that planning and executing a Covid-safe election takes more work, planning and resources from the administrative side and considerably more communication. There are risks not just to health and life, but also to confidence in democracy. We can not afford to get this wrong.

  • We captured lessons from other covid-era elections last May in Democracy deferred  and also last October in Can we have healthy elections in a pandemic? where we called for adequate resourcing, planning and clear decision-making. We weren’t the only ones.
  •  This report from the Electoral Commission captured lessons from the eight by-elections held in Scotland between October and the end of November 2020 which were held safely but did require more effort and cost. It does not, however, indicate how it might be done on scale. Additionally, the by-elections in Scotland largely used electronic counting rather than the labour-intensive hand-counting in English elections.
  • The British Academy drew lessons from elections held around the world early on in the pandemic and provides recommendations for electoral administrators, observers and others involved in elections in How to Hold Elections Safely and Democratically during the Covid-19 Pandemic.
  • The Electoral Management Network and International IDEA have a collection of resources and learning as well as headline findings from looking at pandemic elections. These include the significant additional cost, the need to extend deadlines and the importance of considering the impact across the whole of the election cycle.

We have not resourced our elections sufficiently, nor do we have a low enough caseload to pull off successful elections like the South Koreans. We do not have the statutory framework to support widespread postal balloting or expanded early voting like in the US. We do not want to repeat the problems of the French local elections of 2020 who held one part of their municipal elections amidst pandemic conditions with associated Covid-19 cases, only to delay the second part by months. The Polish elections of May 2020, where inadequate preparation led to very last minute and shambolic postponement, provide another example of a precedent we do not want to replicate. LGIU warned in October 2020 that we were not doing enough to pull off elections satisfactorily in May, and this was before we were hit by the current “new variant” and its associated case-surge. Government has done too little to help councils pull off elections fully and fairly in May, and it is now too late.

Electoral administrators are among the most dedicated supporters of elections and democracy. If ordered to go ahead in May, they will pull out every stop and deliver elections to the best of their ability. Nonetheless, they are overwhelmingly telling us that they fear that their best will not be enough, and that May elections might not be safe enough for staff, candidates and voters. Local government chief executives and council leaders are urging postponement.

I have been involved previously in a poorly organised local/general election. It takes years and lots of time to repair the damage to democracy, with political parties, with elected representatives, with peers, with government, and most of all with residents who want to see “good democracy”. It’s bad enough when this is localised, but for it to happen nationally because the government wouldn’t listen to the advice of the Assoc Election Administrators, LGA, Solace and many others…

Conservative Council Leader

Local government runs these elections, which in England are for councillors, mayors and local referenda. Why wouldn’t central Government listen to what they are saying?

Postpone the elections.