With all polls currently postponed until 6 May 2021, just what are electoral administrators up to during this pandemic?
Many are working from home and keeping the election fires burning. Polls may be postponed but electoral registration continues. The logistics are difficult, with registration still often a paper and signatures process, but teams are running weekly post and scanning sweeps to keep registers up to date.
Like many of their local authority colleagues, election officers have been redeployed to existing services or new ones created to meet the needs of communities and vulnerable citizens. We’ve heard from members who have trained to reinforce bin crew numbers, are packing and delivering emergency food parcels, running prescription referral and delivery services or calling vulnerable or shielding residents to be a friendly voice on the phone and offer help where needed.
Others have stepped up to become deputy registrars, dealing with the sad increase in death registrations. They are helping families in the depths of grief and ensuring that funerals can be arranged. Even as lockdown eases, they will continue registering deaths so that fully trained registrars can clear the growing backlog of birth registrations and delayed marriage and civil partnership ceremonies.
In short, election teams reflect the amazing job that local government across the country is doing to support their communities during this pandemic. Vital, often unsung and making a positive difference.
But what comes after? The implications of having run election services on lower capacity for months will be an issue as we return to a new normal. Many councils had been in full-flow preparation for May local elections, a postponement was only announced on 13 March. All were working on completing accounts and other tasks related to the unscheduled December 2019 General Election. This will all have to be picked back up.
A reformed annual canvass process is still due to be rolled out from June. The yearly process of updating the electoral register is a long and important one. The aim of the new approach is to save time and money by focusing effort on harder to reach groups rather than rounds of blanket mailing households. New processes take time to prepare and to bed in. Election teams now have less time to prepare and to support their residents to understand and take part.
Over the horizon, the number and combinations of polls now scheduled for 6 May 2021 represent huge amounts of work. Any delayed by-elections, governance referendums and neighbourhood planning referendums from March 2020 onwards are also currently set to be held on this date, increasing complexity for voters and administrators alike.
All 333 principal authority councils in England will hold polls, including the new unitary councils for Northamptonshire and Buckinghamshire. Only 26 areas will run one poll, the rest face some combination of local, county, mayoral, combined authority mayoral, police and crime commissioner (PCC) or Greater London Assembly and London Mayoral. The 81 council areas running a combination of three scheduled polls, and the three areas running four, will have their work cut out – particularly as voting systems differ across each election.
Voting methods are not the only difference between some areas’ polls. Welsh electors are due to vote in both the postponed PCC elections (franchise 18 years old and upwards) and those for Senedd/Welsh Parliament members. For the first time, the franchise for Senedd elections will be lowered to allow 16-year olds and all registered residents – regardless of nationality – to vote. The timeframe to register the newly enfranchised has already been impacted by the pandemic, and this year’s annual canvass is set to be a formidable task.
Scottish Parliament elections are also due to be held on 6 May 2021. All 32 councils in Scotland have been preparing to deliver a tried and tested system, with a franchise that already includes all eligible registered residents aged 16 years old and over. But will they be heading to polling stations? There is speculation in the press that the election could be delayed or even run entirely by post. With only twelve months to go until polling day, certainty is needed at a time when it is in shortest supply.
Election teams across the UK will also be contemplating how, in an extended time of social distancing, polling station set-ups will need to change and postal or proxy vote applications may increase. Marked rises in absent vote applications would increase both election costs and the administrative burden on teams when, thanks to coronavirus, local government finance has never looked more precarious.
However, this is all forecasting. None of us can be certain about how and when councils, services and elections will get back to ‘normal’. The only thing we can confidently say is that electoral administrators are an adaptable group of professionals. They will continue to work hard, roll with change and make sure that whenever and however polls run they do so safely, securely and accurately.