We must have clarity now on the elections scheduled for May 2021. We have already missed opportunities to fund and prepare for Covid-safe elections. Dithering on dates at a time when a key ally’s democracy is spectacularly in crisis, is the worst possible reaction to support confidence in the mechanics of elections.
Last year we regretfully accepted that it was the right decision that the May 2020 elections should be delayed. We were in uncharted territory, a novel Coronavirus, with limited ability to test and only a whisper of promise for a vaccine. Given where we were then, delaying in March was probably the soonest that a decision could have been made, but the election delay was one of the longest of any democracies. In retrospect, a delay to Summer or early Autumn would have been better. We acknowledge that the UK government could not have known that.
What’s at stake:
The Welsh Senedd and Scottish Parliament are due to hold elections which are administered by local authorities. Locally, including the held-over 2020 elections we are due to have over 150 elections in local authorities and 13 mayoral elections, police and crime commissioners in England and Wales. Every citizen in Great Britain will have a vote.
This isn’t just about the sheer volume of decision making. It’s about choosing the people who will decide 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.
Running safe elections:
We now know a lot more about holding elections in a pandemic than we did last March. We know that they 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 then but also that vaccines are rolling out. We also know that planning and executing a Covid-safe election takes more work, planning and resources from the administrative side and considerably more communication. We also know that there are risks not just to health and life, but also to confidence in democracy. We cannot 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 many other UK 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 importance of considering the impact across the whole of the election cycle.
Safe in May?
It’s well within the realms of possibility that a traditional election could be held safely in May. What is intensely more difficult is making the necessary preparations for those elections now, in lockdown. Our members have told us that given all the other intense pressures and the lack of additional pandemic election specific funding, councils are feeling pressure preparing for those elections now. The Association of Electoral Administration reports that some of their members are finding it difficult to get temporary electoral staff to commit and that many of the usual polling venues aren’t available and that coordination needed for May elections now is made more significantly more difficult by lockdown. Yet, electoral officers remain dedicated and will do everything humanly possible to deliver safe, free and fair elections in May if they must. It was always possible to prepare for these elections, but we needed longer lead time and more resources, and for government to heed the many warnings that preparation had to be adequately funded.
In response to an urgent question in the House of Commons 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.”
We also agree that elections really ought to go ahead in May, but given how stretched councils are and the additional burden of planning for elections in a pandemic, further uncertainty seems not just unnecessary but rash. If the decision is to run the elections in May, then the Government should commit to doing so with certainty and adequate resources – and they should provide assurance that wasted effort and money spent now if elections do end up being postponed are recompensed. If the decision is to postpone, which would ease pressure in the current crisis, then we should also do so as soon as possible with a clear commitment to delivering safe elections at a later date decided now.
Regretfully again, we prefer the latter. We need to hear from and listen to councils who run these elections and who will be led by the winners of these elections as to when is the most effective time to run this election. We are running a survey today and will share these results with you next week.