by danielbarker on 7 January, 2021
Published on Local Government Chronicle BY JESSICA HILL
One of the country’s most senior election officials has rejected the idea that all-postal voting could replace polling stations in the local elections scheduled for May, as concern amounts about the impact of the ongoing coronavirus crisis on the polls.
Peter Stanyon, chief executive of the Association of Electoral Administrators, yesterday demanded the Cabinet Office explain how the new national lockdown will impact the elections.
He did this as local government minister Luke Hall told council leaders and chiefs on a Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government webinar there are “no plans” to delay the elections and that the Cabinet Office is working to make them as safe as possible.
An official on the call also said the government was “now confident that the printing and despatch sectors can handle increased postal voting”.
New guidance allows for the prospect of polling taking place over the lockdown period, stating that people can leave home “where it is reasonably necessary for voting in an election”.However, speculation is growing that the elections will end up being postponed again – as they were for a year in May 2020 – or replaced by all-postal voting in order to limit the scope of Covid infections from the polls and to overcome significant logistical and political challenges imposed by the pandemic.
Under the government’s current plans to ramp up inoculation, it would take until August at the earliest – three months after the scheduled elections – for everyone over 50, adults with serious illnesses and NHS and social care workers to receive their second vaccine dose.
There have already been calls for the elections to become fully postal in order to limit the risk of infection, but Mr Stanyon dismissed this proposal as “logistically impossible” because it would require 80% of the electorate to provide their signature and date of birth within the next month, in order that voters’ identification could be checked on the postal ballots.
He also warned that moving the elections, which returning officers have been planning for since September, to a postal vote only system would “open up the potential for fraud”.
“It is not a practical solution and the government made it clear it knew this when the original calls for postal ballots were made last autumn,” he said.The elections will be among the most complex set of polls ever held as they involve local elections scheduled this year as well as those postponed from last year, as well as those for local and regional mayors, the London mayor and assembly, police and crime commissioners, neighbourhood planning referendums and postponed local by-elections.
The government has until election notices go up on 29 March nationwide and 22 March in London to decide whether to delay the polls.
But Mr Stanyon says “the reality is that we want to know much sooner than that” as “the earlier the decision is made, the easier it is to make arrangements for the next one”.
Last year’s elections were formally postponed on 13 March in line with recommendations by the Electoral Commission the previous day.
“Ironically, there is more work right now for returning officers to do than there is in the actual run up to the elections, for example in arranging polling stations and early postal vote work,” Mr Stanyon explained.
“Some [returning officers] have deadlines at the end of this week for papers to go to the printers. If the elections are to be moved, this work need to be done all over again ahead of the revised date.
“At the moment we are telling people to carry on as things stand. There will be some frustrations about wasted work if the polls are postponed, but there will be frustrations whatever the case.
“No one knows what it will be like in May, and we need safe polling stations and count venues to be able to proceed.”
Bev Smith, returning officer of North West Leicestershire DC, warned that if elections are run “in the midst of high rates and restrictions”, the “availability of staff and nervousness will impact voter turnout”.
She also said “availability and suitability of polling stations and schools” would be an issue.
“The preference would be to be able to run a full election so as not to disenfranchise anyone – for the sake of four months delay when we are in a better position seems the best option.”
Wyre Forest returning officer Ian Miller said delaying the polls “would be simpler” but the government “needs to act quickly”. Another returning officer told LGC: “For god’s sake delay the elections for at least two months and decide it now to avoid even more abortive work from hugely pressured councils.”
Ed Hammond, director of research and campaigns at the Centre for Governance & Scrutiny, believes it is likely local elections will be delayed until October, but that a decision will not be made until early March “following repeated insistence elections will run as normal”.
“Elections in May could conceivably be seen as distracting leaders from ongoing operational response,” he added. “A delay is logical, but it’s troubling.”
A Cabinet Office spokesperson told LGC it continues to “work closely with the electoral community and public health bodies to resolve challenges and ensure everyone will be able to cast their vote safely and securely – and in a way of their choosing”.
“Measures are planned to support absent voting at short notice. Guidance will be published in good time ahead of the polls and this matter will be kept under review.”
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