Councils across the country have moved mountains to maintain democracy despite the current pandemic.
In order to maintain executive functions authorities have turned to technology – online meetings have streamed via the internet so that communities can continue to engage with the democratic process
Why then should we not do the same for the electoral process – such as using technology to help our residents to a virtual ballot box or expanding postal based voting to ensure that communities can cast their vote in a COVID-secure way?
Elections were cancelled for many in May, denying constituents the right to have their say on who represents them. Delaying cannot be an option for 2021. It is essential that, sooner rather than later, we start planning for how things must be done differently next year. To defer further would simply disengage many from the electoral process when we know that local election turnout is already relatively low.
At a time when residents are beginning to understand the true value of local government, we must harness this newfound enthusiasm and respect for the public sector together with a willingness for the public to ‘do things differently’.
With Government support there is scope for tweaking the system – making forms and processes easier, more intuitive and streamlined, and giving staff the flexibility, trust and resources to do their jobs well in this demanding context. Elections teams up and down the country have proven time and time again that they are resilient and adaptable, including when they delivered a snap election late last year.
A move to an increasingly or even completely postal-based vote is one possible solution to the problem of a COVID-19 local election.
For decades, we have employed postal voting as a way of ensuring that those who are out of the country or otherwise physically unable to attend their local polling station are able to vote. Certainly, postal voting would minimise risks associated with polling stations and the management of self-isolating voters. We already know that it is a safe and tested system, with very little scope for or history of abuse or fraud. Political parties already arrange their campaigns to suit postal voting, recognising that there must be voter contact before postal votes are issued as well as close to polling day.
And we know postal voting can actually increase voter engagement – here in South Tyneside, for the most recent local elections, postal voter turnout was at 64%, versus 21% turnout for those voting at the ballot box.
However, this is still not a simple solution, and could bring its own challenges. For some, applying for a postal vote and then voting by post can seem a relatively laborious and off-putting task compared to the simplicity of marking an ‘x’ on a ballot paper at the local polling station.
However, as postal voters are statistically more likely to vote, an increased uptake in postal voting could potentially lead to a higher than average turnout. This would be a very positive outcome in terms of bolstering democracy but would not come without its own pressures, such as print and postal supplies, so it is important that such an event is properly planned for.
One of the core principles of democracy is that – whatever a person’s wealth, class, background or profession – when he or she casts his vote, that vote is equal in weight to that of any other person’s. But we must acknowledge this pandemic has changed that. This virus is discriminate. It affects certain groups more than others – the elderly, those from black and ethnic minority backgrounds, those with long-term conditions.
For some but not all, next year, and perhaps for some time after that, voting will retain an unavoidable element of risk, risk that they will have to weigh up when deciding whether to cast their vote. If we continue with our plan to stage elections as normal next year, we are failing these groups; failing to put the necessary measures in place to ensure they can participate in democracy as easily and confidently as any other citizen.
With voter turnout relatively low at local elections, the last thing anybody wants is further erosion of democratic engagement and participation.
Whatever the solution is for democracy in a COVID-19 world we cannot and must not postpone. We cannot risk our democracy – it is critical we act quickly to make local elections in a COVID-19 world safe and accessible to all.
Cllr Iain Malcolm is leader of South Tyneside MBC