The UK is due to hold one of its most complex set of elections in May but there are significant questions about whether they should be held during the current phase of the Covid-19 pandemic and, if so, how to make them safe. The lessons from other countries have been mixed. Where elections have been held, there have been significant changes to normal practices as well as huge costs and lead-in times.
The US-based election support group IFES has been closely monitoring elections during the pandemic and the general picture has been that whilst the majority of elections were postponed during the first part of 2020, more and more have been held on schedule since then.
The UK was one of those countries to postpone the regular local elections due in May 2020. And since that time by-elections have also been delayed except in Scotland where a number were held in late 2020. This has led to a large number of councillors and other elected officials – including the Mayor of London – serving past their time. It is proposed that all the delayed polls would be held in May 2021 alongside all those due at that time. This would mean elections for the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Senedd, Mayor and Assembly in London, county councils, many district councils, and Police and Crime Commissioners, as well as a myriad of other polls and the delayed by-elections all being held on the same date.
But with the UK undergoing a significant third wave of pandemic infections, the question of whether these should go ahead has been raised. And whilst vaccinations are going well, the question is whether enough will have received the job to ensure the safety of the elections.
So just how practical is it to try to hold elections in a pandemic? IFES brought together election officials from four countries which have held national votes in recent months to learn what they did. These countries were Georgia, Moldova, Romania and Ukraine. None are exactly analogous to the UK in their electoral systems, but their experiences are still valuable.
First and foremost, this seminar was looking at the polling day experience. The process leading to election day started with much more training for poll workers. As with these countries, the experience factor in the UK is significant. The same group of staff is drawn on for election after election. And where new people are involved, they are generally slotted in with experienced staff. But where a whole new set of skills and procedures are needed, everyone needs training. Meaning lots more zoom seminars organised either by the Electoral Commission or by local authorities. That is a massive burden and requires poll workers to be identified with enough time to receive the training. Experience of elections around the world shows that simply relying on common sense or a written briefing leads to very varied results.
The countries all confirmed that they needed far more poll workers than would normally be the case. Partly this was due to people unwilling to risk themselves in an environment they did not feel was safe. Others came down with Covid-19 or had to self-isolate after contact with someone with the illness and so had to be replaced, up to the last minute. One solution – combining or eliminating individual polling stations – was carried out in the USA, but must be done in advance so that voters know where to go.
As well as training officials, the voters also needed to know what to expect. From social distancing to mask requirements, the rules have to be clear in advance if there are not to be arguments in polling stations. In the case of masks, one can imagine that this would be a make or break factor for some voters and for some staff – so the government has to be absolutely clear about the rules from the off and the decision widely advertised. It cannot rely on ‘common sense’ as this means different things to different people. Poll staff who feel unsafe thanks to people breaking the rules may decide to walk off the job rather than sacrifice their health.
In both Moldova and Ukraine there were temperature checks at the entrance to polling stations. Anyone with an above average reading or who was displaying any signs of a respiratory infection was refused entry and told to request to vote from home – in the UK context an emergency proxy vote is available, but only until mid-afternoon. Ukraine tried to have special polling booths which would only be used by those displaying Covid-19 signs, but this did nothing to shield poll staff and they ended up being used by all voters at busy times.
Polling equipment needs to be kept sanitary and so should be disinfected between each voter. Together with the need for social distancing, this will also inject a delay. And voters must either be asked to bring their own pen or pencil or be given a fresh one, with some way of making sure that they are either carried home or sanitised each time. Moldova insisted that polling places were large enough and well ventilated, factors which would require an audit of all polling stations and new venues being found to replace any which failed to pass muster. Such an audit needs to be undertaken well in advance of election day.
Georgia required many poll workers to either isolate for 14 days before election day or to have a PCR test. Ukraine demanded a PCR test three days before election day. Isolation is an onerous burden in a situation where suitable people are already thin on the ground and staff would probably need to be compensated for this, adding huge extra costs. And whilst the availability of tests in the UK is pretty good, organising one for every potential poll worker would also be a big undertaking.
As with any additional burdens, adherence can be hit and miss. Ukraine reported that compliance with the new rules fell as the day wore on. So any additional burdens need to be clear and manageable with plenty of support offered to staff.
The pressure on election administrators is only part of the problem. The leading election observation group OSCE/ODIHR made it clear when the government of Poland sought to restrict parties’ rights during the general election in that country that the political campaign is as much a part of the election as the voting process. Of course, different countries have different norms when it comes to the campaigns. In the case of those represented at the IFES seminar, none really have the British system of delivering leaflets or knocking on doors, relying much more on TV broadcasts, social media and public rallies. The UK has these methods too, of course. But the ability to canvass and to deliver leaflets using volunteers is key to the UK system and, as the government has recently made clear, is not allowed under the current regulations. As the elections coming up – especially in England – are largely local ones, restricting the campaign to the media and to paid-for deliveries is likely to favour incumbents, the bigger parties and those with more money. At the bare minimum it would seem necessary to offer each candidate a Freepost delivered by Royal Mail in the same way that candidates in a general election are.
As we have seen in the UK, parties have been quick to blame each other for perceived rules breaches. That was also the experience in Georgia where campaigning, even following the rules, was blamed for a spike in cases. Like it or not, there will be references to the police and so having clearly understood rules will be key.
There are other technical aspects of the system in the UK which need addressing too. Candidates need to be nominated for election – typically by ten electors who sign a nomination form. Romania developed an online nomination process and such a system could be copied but needs to be developed fast. In elections where financial deposits are needed, how will these be paid? And the ability to oversee the count is important in the transparency of the election process. How will candidates and their representatives, as well as the media, be able to see fair play?
In summary, the lesson from the IFES seminar is that elections can be organised in Covid-19 conditions, but they require a lot of extra planning. As well as auditing premises and recruiting and training many extra polling staff, there will need to be decisions made on things such as nominating processes, temperature checks, mask requirements and testing or isolation of poll workers, and massive advertising to explain the rules to voters. These same adverts need to make clear how those who either have Covid-19 or are isolating for another reason can vote, including the ability to apply for an emergency vote on election day itself. But the UK context throws additional questions about how fair the election will be for candidates if they cannot campaign freely.
The government has options, of course. But changing to an all-postal vote is not one of them. The last time this was tried, there were many instances of fraud as voting papers were hoovered up by unscrupulous people in houses of multiple occupation, student halls and even in family homes. The rules have changed significantly since then to require postal voters to give their signature and date of birth to election administrators and these are thoroughly checked before a vote is counted. The postal voting system is generally considered to be safe as a result. But it is simply not possible to gather and process these personal identifiers in time for an all-postal ballot in May. Individuals can and should be encouraged to sign up for postal votes using the improved system, but this will only go so far. (IFES has produced a guide to the particular needs of postal voting during the pandemic.)
The only viable alternative to instituting all the measures outlined above and copying the lessons learned from Eastern Europe would appear to be a delay in voting until a time when it is felt circumstances will be safer, probably in the summer or autumn. That is clearly a political, as well as a logistical, decision. But whatever happens, voters, candidates and election administrators need answers sooner rather than later.