The UK Government has published plans for how they are seeking to make sure that local elections in England can go ahead as planned on 6th May. This will be a massive set of elections as by-elections have been cancelled since the start of the pandemic and last year’s local polls were also postponed. Elections in Scotland and Wales are also due, but these are devolved matters for the parliaments of those countries.
The guidance issued by Chloe Smith today largely seems to get things right, although there are a couple of decisions still to be taken and they are important ones.
The biggest positive is that this guidance has been issued now and not delayed further. The government is determined to go ahead with the elections and has set out how they intend to make that happen.
Councils have been given extra money to cope with problems due to Covid, such as having to find alternative venues or hire extra staff. The government is determined that venues used as vaccination centres should not be used and schools should be avoided wherever possible – especially if it would mean closing the whole school for a day. They have also mentioned the problems of small venues where social distancing isn’t possible and the ventilation aspect has also be recognised. What is not referred to is extra training both for new staff and for existing staff to cope with changes to the usual practices. Of course, local authorities will have to work out whether £92m is enough to cope with the additional burdens and I suspect many new venues will be needed.
As for voters, they are being told that they should wear masks unless exempt, but we will have to wait to find out whether refusal to wear a mask without an exemption is sufficient grounds for staff to refuse to allow a person to vote. That is important as staff have to feel safe in their work.
Voters are encouraged to bring their own pen or pencil to vote, although it is assumed that there will be a stock of pens to be used if they forget. Social distancing and regular cleaning will also be in operation, but all election day related activities will be considered essential travel.
Voters are being told to apply for postal votes if they feel at all unsure about voting in person, although the paper makes the case that if a person feels confident to visit a supermarket then they should have confidence in going to vote. Local authorities are being encouraged to contact clinically extremely vulnerable people to offer them postal or proxy votes. However the government has (rightly in my view) come down against all-postal polls due to the risk of fraud and increased costs.
The option of proxy voting is also heavily promoted and the rules are being changed so that people can apply for an emergency proxy vote up until 5pm on election day if they have tested positive or are isolating. However, the usual need for an attestation (ie a doctor to confirm illness) has been removed and so this essentially becomes an ‘on demand’ provision.
One area which is not yet clear is the nominations process. Secondary legislation and subsequent guidance is going to be issued within the next two weeks.
The major weakness in the paper has to do with the political campaign. Parties are being told that they can use many campaigning methods which do not involve social contact – online and telephone campaigning and the use of postal or paid-for delivery. The government says they have increased expenses limits to cover this. However, these methods – particularly paid-for delivery – are expensive and may have the effect of limiting the chances of less well off parties and independent candidates. Recognising this, the government says it will consider whether volunteer leaflet delivery and other activities including canvassing will be allowed for the period of the regulated campaign – ie the four weeks or so immediately before polling day. Clearly that is likely to depend on the pandemic situation at the time. That is not ideal and I hope that the government consider relaxing the restrictions as early as possible in this regard, but the implication does appear to be that for the campaign period at least there will be additional campaigning possibilities.