The Electoral Commission has written to the government warning of “real risks to the successful delivery of the scheduled 7 May 2020 elections”, in light of the current and emerging situation around Covid-19 in the UK.
In a letter to Chloe Smith MP, Minister for the Constitution and Devolution, Electoral Commission chief executive Bob Posner said the watchdog had been in close contact with key stakeholders across the electoral community – including the Association of Electoral Administrators, Solace, the Greater London Returning Officer, the Wales Electoral Coordination Board, and government officials – to assess the risks, and to identify and take forward appropriate mitigations to enable the delivery of the elections.
“While this work is continuing, it has already become clear that the risks are so significant as to raise serious concerns about the polls continuing to their current timetable,” Posner said.
“Although polling day is not until 7 May, preparations for the elections are already well underway and indeed publication of notice of election – which marks the start of the formal timetable – will take place later this month. This means that a decision now needs to be taken, by Government and as appropriate by Parliament, whether to proceed with the scheduled 7 May polls.”
The letter said local authorities had concerns about their ability to ensure that polling station venues were secure, set up, staffed and accessed – “particularly at the same time as continuing to manage other key services in the current circumstances”.
The Electoral Commission chief executive said it was also vital that voters were able to hear the positions of candidates, parties and campaigners before they cast their vote. It warned that many forms of campaigning might not be possible, leaving insufficient space for the arguments to be heard.
The watchdog anticipated that as a result of the direct and indirect impacts of Covid-19, there would be significant numbers of registered electors who in practice would not have opportunity to vote, or feel inclined to vote.
“While increased access to post and proxy voting may provide a partial solution for some electors, it would create further and additional pressures and risks in other parts of the system,” the letter warned.
Posner said: “Clearly any decisions to delay elections which are due is significant and would not normally be desirable; however, we are in unprecedented times. The risks to delivery that have been identified are such that we cannot be confident that voters will be able to participate in the polls safely and confidently, nor that campaigners and parties will be able to put their case to the electorate.
“We therefore call on the Government to take steps to provide early clarity to all those with an interest in the electoral process; and on the available information and position we recommend the Government now delay the 7 May polls until the autumn. In this context we are also mindful that the Chief Executives of local authorities and their staff across the country are necessarily focussed on the ongoing management of the impacts Covid-19 is having on their localities.”
The letter said similar impacts could also be expected to affect the effective delivery of by-elections during the intervening period, and Posner said the watchdog hoped that this could also be addressed at the same time by providing that these could also be deferred.