A briefing paper on the legal issues surrounding a Scottish independence referendum
Since this Insight was published the Government has confirmed the English elections will take place and has published its delivery plan.
Elections are due to take place across Great Britain on Thursday 6 May 2021. There has been speculation that elections could or should be delayed because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
This Insight looks at what elections are scheduled and what has been said about holding them.
What elections are scheduled?
The elections due to be held in May 2021 are:
- Elections for all seats to the Scottish Parliament and the Senedd Cymru/Welsh Parliament. These devolved elections will decide who runs the devolved governments in each country for the next five years;
- County council elections for all seats in 24 English two-tier counties and six unitary counties;
- Whole council elections in Doncaster and the Isles of Scilly;
- Three combined authority mayors and two single authority mayors;
- Parish council elections in some areas of England.
Elections delayed from 2020 are also scheduled for May 2021:
- Police and crime commissioners in England and Wales
- Local and mayoral elections in many parts of England, including the London mayoral and GLA elections
The City of London elections operate differently to other local elections. They had been due in March 2021 but have already been postponed to March 2022.
In addition, there are hundreds of local council by-elections for seats currently vacant and postponed neighbourhood planning referendums still to be held.
Should they be postponed?
One argument for holding the elections is that voters should have a say when important decisions are being taken by elected representatives during the pandemic. But holding elections will lead to safety concerns and logistic challenges.
The Local Government Information Unit (LGiU) recently surveyed senior council officers responsible for elections. Responses came from 71% of councils in England.
Two thirds of councils were worried about holding elections in England in May and almost 70% believe they should be held in the autumn.
Key concerns include difficulties in preparing, the cost of running a safe election and of any last-minute postponement.
Finding polling and count venues is also a problem. Respondents to the LGiU survey said the use of schools is proving contentious and some other usual venues, like church halls, are refusing to open to host a polling station.
The Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE), has called for returning officers to be indemnified against being sued by people if they catch Covid while voting.
What have the governments said?
The UK Government has said the elections in England should go ahead. The Telegraph reported (subscription required) that Government had calculated lockdown measures will have eased sufficiently by Easter for campaigning to go ahead. The Government view is that currently door to door campaigning is not considered essential or necessary activity.
Minister Chloe Smith answered an Urgent Question in the House of Commons on 13 January 2021. She said there should be a ”high bar” for delaying elections further and voters should apply early to vote by post or proxy if they want to avoid polling stations. Any additional costs for council elections in England will have to be paid for by from additional non-ring-fenced funding already provided to local authorities by the UK Government.
The Labour Party demanded assurances that if the elections did need to be delayed this would be communicated early. It also called safer voting methods to be introduced, including voting over multiple days and an all-postal ballot, and additional funding to help returning officers plan.
First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, said early in January the Scottish Parliamentary election should go ahead. But she also said any delays or changes to the way the elections are run “have to be done on a genuinely collaborative and cross-party basis.”
First Minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, also said in early January that the Senedd elections should be held and that it was considering contingency plans.
How can elections be made safer?
Elections have been successfully held in other countries during the pandemic. Research by leading academics concluded that the key solutions were enabling postal voting, allowing polling over several days and proper resources to allow for cleaning, hand sanitising and personal safety equipment for staff.
In the USA, November’s Presidential election saw 36% of voters vote in person on election day, with 41% voting by mail and 22% voting in person before election day.
New Zealand postal voting is limited to overseas voters but people can choose to vote in advance. In its general election in October 2020, nearly 2 million voted in the two weeks before polling day when advance voting was allowed. That’s 83% of all the ballots cast, compared to 47% in 2017.
What about here in the UK?
Major changes to election processes or dates would require emergency legislation.
Administrators have said it would be logistically impossible for England to hold all postal-votes in May and would open the vote up to potential fraud. Voters wanting to vote by post are being encouraged to apply early to give elections staff plenty of time to process the applications.
The UK Government has promised to change the rules for emergency proxy votes in England so that people affected by Covid-19 in the few days before the election can apply for a proxy to vote on their behalf.
The Scottish Parliament unanimously passed the Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill on 23 December 2020. It includes emergency powers to be used as a last resort. They would allow for all-postal voting, voting over more than one day and to delay the elections for six months.
The Welsh Elections Planning Group recommended in November 2020 that the elections should go ahead but the group could not reach a consensus on the need for contingency arrangements to postpone the election. Emergency legislation was introduced on 27 January 2021 that includes similar provisions of ‘last resort’ to the Scottish legislation.
About the author: Neil Johnston is a researcher at the House of Commons Library, specialising in elections.
Photo by Russss / CC0
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