Letter: Coronavirus and its impact on the May polls

Summary of the letter

Date: 12 March 2020

To: Chloe Smith MP, Minister for the Constitution and Devolution

CC Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office

Address: Cabinet Office, 70 Whitehall, London, SW1A 2AS

From: Bob Posner, Chief Executive

Format: Sent by email

Full letter

Dear Minister,  

In light of the current and emerging situation around Covid-19 in the UK, I wanted to write to set out the Commission’s concerns about the real risks to the successful delivery of the scheduled 7 May 2020 elections.

We have been in close contact with a range of key stakeholders across the electoral community – including the Association of Electoral Administrators, Solace, the Greater London Returning Officer, the Wales Electoral Coordination Board, and of course your 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. 

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. 

So voters can cast their ballot, polling station venues need to be secured, set up, staffed and accessed; we already know that local authorities have concerns about their ability to ensure this, particularly at the same time as continuing to manage other key services in the current circumstances. It is also vital that voters are able to hear the positions of candidates, parties and campaigners before they cast their vote; however, many forms of campaigning may not be possible, leaving insufficient space for the arguments to be heard.

We also anticipate that as a result of the direct and indirect impacts of Covid-19, there will be significant numbers of registered electors who in practice will 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. 

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. 

Similar impacts could also be expected to affect the effective delivery of by-elections during the intervening period, and we would hope that this could also be addressed at the same time by providing that these could also be deferred. Looking further ahead, there may also be a potential impact on annual canvass activity across the UK, and this is something that it will be important for Government to return to with us in due course. 

The Commission stands ready to provide further advice and take or co-ordinate necessary actions, as may be of assistance to the Government in this matter.