Elections on lockdown

In which Alan Collins from Medway Elects ponders the consequences of all 2020 elections being postponed..

If you cast your minds back to November, when the biggest crisis the country was facing was the threat of a no-deal Brexit and politicians and activists were busily campaigning in the third general election in four years, I signed off my predictions for those elections with a flippant comment about 2020’s Police and Crime Commissioner election.

Whilst it was written tongue-in-cheek to appear as though I was hoping for a break from elections, as someone who geeks out on electoral data, any vote is a source of unashamed joy. But of course, back in November, no one could have predicted that our lives would change so much in so little time, as they have by COVID-19.

My heart goes out to everyone affected by COVID-19. As I write this, Medway NHS Foundation Trust have confirmed 248 coronavirus-related deaths in hospital, and of course that figure does not include deaths outside of hospital, for which there is a lag in reporting.

It is also worth remembering that, while the overall figures are distressing, they are not merely statistics: every one of those 248 deaths represents a life taken too soon and family and friends left behind to grieve. I work with grieving families every day in the day job, and I can only begin to imagine the additional pain and suffering which comes from not being able to say goodbye in person, or possibly even attend a funeral.

With such a backdrop, it is perhaps a little odd to be thinking about elections at a time like this. However, it is important to remember that this crisis will pass. No one can say for sure how long that will take, but provided people continue to follow government advice, the spread of the virus will be minimised and we will slowly be able to return to normality.

When this does pass, there will need to be full democratic accountability for decisions taken during this crisis, in just the same way as any other decisions taken by elected officials. Local authorities will need to be held accountable for decisions they have taken in relation to key services, particularly social care. Police and Crime Commissioners will need to be held accountable for ensuring resources within their control were allocated appropriately. And in 2024 (if not sooner), the government will need to be held accountable as the primary decision maker in relation to the NHS, the economic response and social distancing measures designed to limit the spread of the virus.

Each of us will have our own views on how effectively (or otherwise) our elected officials have responded to this crisis and limited its impact, and it is through elections when our collective voice is heard loudest and most effectively. But we will not have that opportunity to collectively voice our opinion for the rest or this year, nor the first few months of next year.

One of the earliest decisions taken by the government was to postpone all elections that were due to take place on 7 May, which was formalised in section 60 of the Coronavirus Act 2020. In Medway this only affected the Kent Police and Crime Commissioner election, but other areas of the country were also due to elect their local councillors and directly elected mayors. Although a twelve-month postponement might seem drastic, it provides certainty for elected officials, whose terms of office have automatically been extended, and concerned returning officers, given we do not know how many more weeks or, more likely, months precautionary measures will need to last.

This was also an eminently sensible precaution given the nature of electoral practice.

In the run-up to any election, thousands upon thousands of activists will flood their local area with countless leaflets and knock on as many doors as is practical. On election day itself, most voters will head to polling stations, usually small, enclosed buildings where they will interact closely with polling staff and other voters. The ballot boxes are then sent to central counting centres, where staff sit closely together handling every ballot cast in the election and stacking them in piles which are then collected by other polling staff moving around the counting areas.

In short, a socially distanced election is simply not possible, while the likelihood of spreading a highly contagious and life-threatening virus is distressingly high.

One suggestion around this could have been running the elections by post only, but could this have worked in practice?

In the 2019 general election, a total of 141,706 ballots were cast across Medway’s three constituencies, out of a total electorate of 227,247. Of those, 34,364 were postal votes, meaning just 15.1% of the electorate voted by post. In the local election last May, a total of 61,812 ballots were cast across Medway’s 22 wards, out of a total electorate of 197,686. Of those, 21,128 were postal votes, meaning just 10.7% of the electorate voted by post.

The logistical challenge of registering over 100,000 people for postal votes and then sending out around 200,000 individual ballot papers in such a short period of time would have been enormous, particularly at a time when a lot of the council’s staff are working from home and focused on dealing with issues resulting from COVID-19. And that’s just in Medway. When you add to that the temptation for candidates and activists to hit the campaign trail, and the need to find a way to put polling staff, candidates and counting agents in one room in such a way as to maintain both social distancing and transparency of the count, and then replicate that across the country, the idea of holding the elections by post only becomes very unattractive, very quickly.

The decision to postpone the ordinary elections (as they are known in legislation) on 7 May was followed by a decision to postpone any by-elections for councillors and Police and Crime Commissioners. Under the Local Government and Police and Crime Commissioner (Coronavirus) (Postponement of Elections and Referendums) (England and Wales) Regulations 2020, if any of these positions fall vacant for any reason, they will remain vacant until 6 May 2021, the same date as the postponed ordinary elections.

Whilst this sets up a bumper election day next May, including a large number of local councils, elected mayors and Police and Crime Commissioners, as well as the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales, the decision also throws up the interesting question of terms of office. Councillors and Police and Crime Commissioners are elected to serve for four years. Those due to stand down or face re-election on 7 May will have served for up to five years before their term of office comes to an end. So should their successors still serve a full four-year term, or should their term of office be curtailed to just three years?

A simple answer to the disruption to the electoral cycle would have been to reset it from May 2021. However, that would not work in all circumstances, for example councils which elect in thirds (where one-third of councillors are chosen at each election). Voters in Maidstone, for instance, were due to elect their third set of borough councillors this year and their county councillors next year, as the cycles are timed to ensure only one set of councillors are elected each May. Whilst electing both in 2021 can be accepted under these extraordinary circumstances, the idea of having no elections in 2024 and two elections in 2025 (and every four years thereafter) is less than ideal.

Fortunately, this question had been considered as part of the Coronavirus Act. Section 60 also stipulates that those who are elected next May who should have been elected this May are to be treated as though they had been elected this May when calculating when they should next face an election. In other words, successful candidates from the postponed elections will only serve for three years, until 2024, to keep the present electoral cycles synchronised beyond the present crisis.

Ultimately, those of us who geek out on elections must wait another year before we can get our next fix and find something else to occupy our time with until then. Personally, I am using the electoral hiatus constructively, making considerable improvements to Medway Elects (although this does, unfortunately, mean the website is going in and out of “maintenance mode” for much of the next few weeks).

In the meantime, if we all continue to follow government advice and support each other (virtually), we will be able to start returning to life as normal (or as close to normal as possible) sooner rather than later. Stay safe, and together we will beat this.

Alan Collins is the creator of Medway Elects, which is committed to building a complete electoral history for Medway.

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