On 25 February 2021, Lord Tyler is due to ask Her Majesty’s Government “what arrangements they (1) have, and (2) plan to, put in place to ensure that all eligible electors who are prevented from voting in person by (a) medical advice relating to, and (b) the restrictions in place to address, the Covid-19 pandemic are able to participate in the elections due to take place on 6 May”.
What elections are planned for May 2021?
A number of elections are currently scheduled to be held across Great Britain on 6 May 2021. Some of these are elections that were postponed from last May due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The elections scheduled to take place include mayoral elections, local council elections, police and crime commissioner elections and elections for the Scottish and Welsh parliaments.
There have been concerns that the elections due to be held in May 2021 may need to be postponed due to the ongoing pandemic. However, the Government has stated that it is committed to these elections going ahead and would publish guidance to ensure everyone could cast their votes safely:
We continue to work closely with the electoral 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.
The Government is also bringing forward additional measures to extend the ability to appoint a proxy, so that those that are affected by Covid-19 in the days before the poll are still able to make their voice heard.
What does the Government guidance say?
The Government published its May 2021 polls delivery plan on 5 February 2021. The guidance included the following commitments to ensure the polls could go ahead safely:
- Voters will have a choice between in-person and absent voting. Postal and proxy voting will be supported, and proxy voting rules changed so that those affected by Covid-19 in the days before the poll can still vote.
- We will work with our partners to make sure that voters, electoral staff, candidates, campaigners and the wider public are protected to the maximum extent possible from the spread of disease. We will be clear about how existing public health regulations and guidance apply to essential voting activities.
- Candidates and their agents will have additional guidance on the specific application of social distancing and other regulations to their activities, including nominations and campaigning.
- Returning officers and local authorities will have support from the government that they need to deliver the elections, including additional funding for the extra costs the necessary public health measures will generate.
The guidance provides more details on each of these. For example, it specifies that the proxy voting rules would be adapted to ensure that anyone self-isolating can request a proxy vote up to 5pm on polling day itself. It also said the Government was working with suppliers, local authorities and the Royal Mail to ensure postal voting was fully Covid-19 secure and effective.
The Government stated that there will be an estimated £92 million of government funding provided to returning officers and local authorities for the elections, £31 million of which is extra funding to address the costs of making the elections Covid-19 secure. It hoped this extra funding would help address some of the challenges associated with these elections, such as the need for additional staff in light of public health recommendations (eg to support social distancing measures) and finding alternative polling station and count locations, due to many of the usual locations being unavailable.
The Government stressed the importance of the elections and hoped that the steps being taken will give everyone the confidence that they will be able to vote safely:
Everyone who feels comfortable going to a supermarket or a post office should also feel confident attending a polling station in May. We encourage anybody who is shielding, or who would prefer not to attend a polling station, to apply for a postal or proxy vote ahead of the polls.
As the economy recovers from Covid-19, locally elected representatives will be able to help build back better. We hope that every elector will take the opportunity to have their say in May’s elections with the confidence that the right precautions are in place.
What has been the reaction from local government?
Responding to the publication of the guidance, the Local Government Information Unit (LGiU) welcomed the clarity that the guidance and the Government’s commitment to the elections provided. However, although it acknowledged the Government had listened to some of local government’s concerns, it did flag up issues it felt were not yet addressed:
It is good that the Government has listened to some of the concerns from the sector and made extra funding available for these elections. However, we need to look at other measures such as PPE [personal protective equipment] supplies and vaccinating poll workers to ensure their safety.
It is good that the Government is allowing emergency proxies and changing the rules around nominations (though still no detail) but the campaign around postal votes needs to start today.
And, some key logistical problems still remain—all the money in the world can’t conjure up venues that aren’t there or staff that don’t exist.
Despite its “serious concerns” with the elections going ahead as currently planned, however, it emphasised that local government would rise to the challenge to deliver them.
LGiU had previously published a report in January 2021 outlining the concerns raised by local government about the elections. Following a survey of council officers across England, it found that 68% of respondents believed an autumn timetable would be more achievable. Concerns raised about the May elections included:
- Ability to train, recruit and ensure the safety of electoral staff.
- Preparing for the elections in the current environment.
- Disenfranchising voters who have coronavirus concerns.
- Ability of campaigns to run effectively.
- Worries about the elections being “potential super-spreader events”.
In addition to recommending holding the elections at a set later date, respondents also highlighted some other ways the Government could help, including:
- Additional ring-fenced funding.
- More support for postal voting.
- National information campaigns.
- Direct support with preparation (including obtaining PPE) and finding suitable venues.
- Prioritising vaccinations for electoral staff.
Can members of the House of Lords vote in the elections?
Members of the House of Lords can vote in the elections.
Current members of the House of the Lords are only barred from voting in UK general elections (ie elections to the House of Commons). They would only be able to vote in UK general elections if they left the membership of the House (eg through retirement).
Further information on this, and on Lord Naseby’s private member’s bill aimed at enabling peers to vote in UK general elections, can be found in the House of Lords Library briefing: Extension of Franchise (House of Lords) Bill [HL]: Briefing for Lords Stages, 28 January 2020.
- Electoral Commission, ‘Conducting elections under coronavirus restrictions’, 8 January 2021
- House of Commons Library, ‘Coronavirus: Impact on 2021 elections’, 27 January 2021
- House of Commons Library, Who can vote in UK elections?, 19 November 2020
Cover image from Freepik.