Make May elections in England more Covid-safe, Labour urges

A Cabinet Office document has warned that millions could be put off voting by safety fears

Labour has urged ministers to make May’s elections in England more Covid-secure, after the emergence of a Cabinet Office document that warned the pandemic could severely hamper the process and put millions off voting.

The paper raises the possibility that even if coronavirus infection levels are relatively low, it could be difficult to attract enough election staff, and that safety fears may “disenfranchise large proportions of [the] community”.

Labour is calling for safeguards such as the possibility of spreading voting over several days, or having an all-postal vote, options that have been prepared for elections to the Scottish parliament, also due to take place on 6 May.

The Cabinet Office said the elections document dated from May 2020, and that the scenarios were part of a planning exercise, rather than predictions.

Election officials have already said that the English elections will be logistically complicated, not least because they comprise two sets of votes – this year’s, and those postponed from May 2020.

There will also be ballots to elect the London mayor and assembly, a series of other mayors, and police and crime commissioners (PCCs), with some voters facing up to seven separate ballots.

Although they will be protected by plastic screens, there are concerns about attracting enough volunteer election staff – especially given that many tend to be older – and about finding venues.

The May 2020 Cabinet Office document, seen by the Guardian, sets out two hypothetical scenarios. In the first, even though the Covid outbreak has been largely contained, the double set of elections causes “significant challenges for administration and supply”.

The other scenario theorises some limited social distancing measures, even as “overall normality is returning”. Under this, the document posits staff shortages due to redeployment of council officers, home working, and health worries for at-risk staff, plus a greatly increased number of postal votes.

It also sets out the idea that social media posts “inciting fear of continued spread of Covid-19 threaten to disenfranchise large proportions of [the] community”.

Cat Smith, the shadow Cabinet Office minister, said it was “deeply concerning that ministers have failed to introduce new voting methods used across the world to ensure polls can go ahead safely”.

She said: “Labour has consistently called for safer voting methods to be introduced, including voting over multiple days and all-postal voting. Ministers have had many months to make the necessary changes to protect our democratic process, but instead they are treating these elections like business as usual.”

While the government has said it will set out its plans for the elections in England soon, there is currently no provision for changes such as spreading the vote over several days.

Each UK nation organises its own elections. Scotland and Wales are holding elections on the same day for their parliaments, and for PCCs in Wales. There are no elections in Northern Ireland this year.

The Scottish parliament passed legislation in late 2020 allowing for May’s Holyrood election to be held over two days, for vote counting to take longer, for an all-postal vote election, or even to delay the election if it seen as too unsafe to stage on 6 May.

Political parties are likely to put heavy emphasis on postal voting to ensure voters are not put off casting ballots in polling stations, but Scotland’s election management board says polling stations will be safe.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said the elections document set out “hypothetical, made-up scenarios used in a planning exercise by officials back in May 2020. The document clearly states that the scenarios are not predictions.”

They said: “Last week, the government set out its action plan to roll out vaccines at pace. We are working closely with the electoral sector, public health bodies and political parties to identify and resolve challenges in the successful delivery of the polls this May. We will set out this detailed planning in due course.”

Contributors

Peter Walker and Severin Carrell

The GuardianTramp

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