Report on the May 2021 elections in Wales
In July 2020, during a time of rising concern about the coronavirus pandemic, discussions began around the management and administration of the Senedd elections in a pandemic environment. Whilst there had been speculation that the elections might be postponed, in February 2021, the Welsh Government announced its firm intention that the elections would go ahead as planned on 6 May 2021. The UK Government also confirmed that the Police and Crime Commissioner elections postponed from May 2020 would take place on the same date.
Rules for the Senedd election were made by Welsh Government while rules for the Police and Crime Commissioner election were made by the UK Government. This combination, which included the difference in voter eligibility between the two sets of elections, together with the pandemic, resulted in a high level of complexity for those administering the polls.
However, people were able to register to vote and take part in the elections. There were 51,500 applications to register made from 26 March to 27 April, and a total of 2.3 million were registered to vote in the elections in Wales. For the first time 16 and 17 year olds and foreign citizens resident in Wales were able to register to vote at the Senedd elections.
Turnout across the elections was similar to previous years, suggesting Covid-19 did not stop voters from taking part. Voting by post or appointing a proxy were highlighted as options for those who did not feel comfortable, or safe, voting in person, and there was a small increase in the number of people who applied to vote by post at these polls.
Alongside the usual challenges for Returning Officers and electoral administrators in running and overseeing successful elections, there were a number of extra requirements imposed by Covid-19 to comply with public health guidance and regulations and ensure that everyone could participate safely.
The experience of these polls has again highlighted concerns about the resilience and capacity of electoral administration structures in Wales, which are coupled with the challenges of delivering elections within an outdated and increasingly complex electoral law framework.
For campaigners, the changing public health regulations and restrictions caused uncertainty, and they had to adapt their plans as official guidance changed before and during the campaign period. Campaigners were able to communicate with voters using a number of methods including online, through printed material and eventually face-to-face. However, feedback from candidates shows that campaigning ahead of these elections was challenging.
Digital campaigning was particularly important to campaigners for the May polls and this trend is likely to continue in future years. Transparency around who is responsible for producing campaign material online remains of critical importance, and lessons from elsewhere in the UK about digital imprint rules should be a consideration for future devolved elections taking place in Wales.
Overall, the evidence and feedback we have collected indicates that the 2021 elections in Wales on 6 May 2021 were well-run and voters and campaigners had confidence in the management of the polls, despite the difficulties they encountered as a result of the Covid-19 restrictions
On 6 May 2021 an election took place to elect 60 members of the Senedd, 40 representing the constituencies of Wales and 20 representing the regions. The election was combined with the Police and Crime Commissioner elections, postponed from May 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. In some constituencies, local authorities also held by-elections.
The franchise for each election was different with 16 and 17 year olds and foreign citizens legally resident in Wales able to vote in the Senedd election for the first time. Two different voting systems were used: the Additional Member System in the Senedd election, and the Supplementary Vote for the Police and Crime Commissioner election.
Returning Officers, consistent with Electoral Commission guidance, put in place new procedures in polling stations to comply with public health guidelines and to ensure that voters were confident that they could vote safely. To make sure everyone knew about the different voting options available to them and the safety measures in place, the Commission, along with local authorities, took a lead role in communicating these messages before the elections.
Voters continue to have positive views about how elections are run
Notwithstanding the challenges of a complex set of polls held during the Covid-19 pandemic, people had high levels of satisfaction with the process of registering to vote and voting, and thought they had enough information about the elections to enable them to take part. Our research showed that:
- 86% of people were satisfied with the process of registering to vote
- 95% of people who voted at the election were satisfied with the process of voting
- the vast majority (94%) of voters in Wales said it was easy to fill in their ballot papers for the Senedd election whereas only 83% of those who voted at the Police Crime Commissioner said the same
- first time voters were more likely to say they were dissatisfied with the process of voting (10%) and were significantly more likely to find the electoral system confusing compared to repeat voters (55% compared to 22%)
Three-quarters of people said they were confident that the elections were well-run; however, at least one in 10 were not. This figure is lower than the proportion of people in 2016 who thought the elections were well run (83%).
Reasons given by those who said they were not confident the election was well-run were:
- there wasn’t enough information about the candidates (25%)
- did not think it was safe for people to vote at polling stations because of Covid-19 (22%)
- did not feel it was appropriate for the election to take place during the pandemic (20%)
- there wasn’t enough information about the elections (20%)
The pandemic does not appear to have stopped people from turning out to vote
Turnout, at 46.8%, was slightly higher than at the 2016 elections (45.6%). Turnout among 16 and 17 year olds seems largely in line with other younger age groups and notably lower than turnout among the over 55s.
Postal and proxy voting were highlighted as alternative ways of voting due to the pandemic and the number of voters choosing these methods did increase, although perhaps not as highly as some had anticipated in a pandemic environment, with 458,928 issued with a postal vote in 2021 compared to 395,878 in 2016 (19.2% compared with 17.6%).
Turnout compared with other elections
People were confident that they could vote using their preferred method
Although public health restrictions were in place at the time of the elections, people had a choice of how to cast their vote. They could choose to vote in person at their polling station, by post, or by asking someone to do so on their behalf (proxy voting).
94% of people who voted said they were able to use their preferred method of voting.
Voters using polling stations were confident that they were safe places to vote
People who didn’t want to go to a polling station had options for voting remotely
People who don’t want to vote in person at the polling station can apply to cast their vote by post or appoint someone to vote on their behalf, known as a proxy. If their situation changes close to an election due to work or disability, people can appoint an emergency proxy up to 5pm on polling day to vote on their behalf.
The law was changed ahead of these elections so that so that anyone who had to self-isolate close to polling day because they had tested positive for Covid-19, or had been in close contact to someone who had tested positive, could also appoint a proxy.
Most people knew what options they had if they didn’t want to vote in a polling station. Our research showed that:
75% of people said that they found it easy to get information about the different methods of voting that they could choose from
older voters were more likely than younger voters to say it was easy to get this information
one in five first time postal voters said they chose to vote that way because they were prompted by information sent by their local authority. A similar number (21%) said that they chose to vote by post because they saw advertising from the Electoral Commission
over three-quarters (78%) of those electoral administrators that replied to our survey said that they had run a campaign about postal voting in their area
The majority of calls from the public to the Electoral Commission’s public information helpline in Wales related to the postal voting process, with callers not having access to a printer in order to print off and complete the form, or being unclear about where to return their postal vote application form.
Remote voting continued
Recommendation 1: Retain an emergency proxy option for isolating voters
Legislation introduced for these elections to allow emergency proxy votes for anyone who tested positive for Covid-19, or had to self-isolate, helped provide a safeguard for anyone whose circumstances changed close to the polls and ensure that they were not prevented from participating. Although the provision was not widely relied upon in practice, it was nevertheless an important change to ensure that no one lost their ability to vote.
We recommend that Welsh Government should ensure this option continues to be available if people are required to self-isolate as part of the public health response to Covid-19.
Further education and engagement is required to support new voters to understand and participate in Welsh elections
The Senedd and Elections Wales Act 2020 extended the voting franchise for Welsh elections to 16-17 year olds and qualifying foreign citizens. This meant that approximately 100,000 new voters were eligible to vote for the first time in the Senedd election.
To ensure new voters understood this change and knew how to register, the Electoral Commission worked with the Welsh Government, the Senedd Commission and partners across Wales including NUS Wales, the Welsh Refugee Council and the Trussell Trust to encourage registration and educate new voters about their vote.
Further education and engagement is required to support new voters to understand and participate in Welsh elections breakdown
Partnerships case study: The Democracy Box
In January 2021, as part of our partnership working ahead of the May elections the Commission became a collaborator on the Democracy Box project – a non-partisan research and development project looking at how young people can creatively inform and engage all generations in our UK democracy. The project’s research found that many people do not have a sound basic understanding of UK democracy and how local, devolved and UK Governments all work together and why. The project’s goal of informing and educating people about the different administrations, voting systems and democratic participation aligned closely to the goals of our own education work.
32 young people aged 16-30 from across Wales led the project as paid content creators, identifying how and where they want to see the educational content. To date they have produced a podcast, Instagram, TikTok and YouTube channels all exploring key themes like how to get in touch with your MP, how to vote and devolution.
“It's a great opportunity to use my skill set in politics, technology, software, design and video editing. It's a fantastic chance to just do something completely positive, and help other people engage in democracy.” Young Co-Creator aged 16
We supported the project via our education resources and attended feedback and brainstorming sessions with the young co-creators. This allowed us to gain valuable insight into the effectiveness of the resources and our ‘Welcome to Your Vote’ campaign.
Further education and engagement is required to support new voters to understand and participate in Welsh elections continued
Campaigning at the elections overview
Campaigning is an essential element of a healthy democracy. This includes publishing and distributing campaign material, sending election communications to electors, displaying advertising hoardings and banners, canvassing door to door, and speaking to voters on polling day.
Campaigners had to adapt their activities due to the pandemic and there was a lack of certainty when planning for the elections which meant it was not straight forward for campaigners to plan and deliver their activities.
Parties and candidates did not appear to be deterred from participating in the poll
A total of 308 candidates stood for election across the 40 Senedd constituencies in 2021. The number of constituency candidates represents an increase from the 248 candidates who stood at the National Assembly for Wales election in 2016.
In May 2021, a total of 326 candidates stood on a regional list at the Senedd elections. This again, was an increase from the 305 candidates that stood on a regional list in 2016.
For the Police and Crime Commissioner elections, 21 candidates stood in May 2021, which was an increase from 19 candidates in 2016.
The changing public health context caused uncertainty for campaigners
Campaigners were able to engage with voters while following public health regulations and guidance
Recommendation 2: We recommend that the Welsh Government should legislate on a digital imprint law
We recommend that Welsh Government should legislate to ensure that a digital imprint is required for online campaign material for future Senedd and Welsh local government elections.
Processes for submitting nominations prioritised access and safety
Codes of practice provided clarity on spending
Regulators strengthened collaboration during the election period
For the May 2021 elections, we worked with regulator partners to run an online public awareness campaign and encourage voters to find more information from a new section of our website. The campaign aimed to encourage people to think more carefully about political campaign adverts they see online, and it provided information about which regulators or other organisations they could contact if they had concerns.
Evaluation of the campaign showed that over 7.6 million people across Britain saw our adverts on websites and social media platforms. The number of people who clicked through to find more information from the adverts was encouraging, and provides a good foundation for further awareness-raising activity at future elections.
Delivering the elections overview
Overall, our evidence shows that the polls were well-run. Voters and campaigners reported high levels of satisfaction and confidence, and there were only a small number of issues that had an impact on their experience.
For Returning Officers and electoral administrators, however, these elections presented unique and difficult challenges and it was only thanks to their considerable effort and commitment that the polls were delivered successfully.
Early planning helped in managing the elections
Recommendation 3: Statutory role for the Wales Electoral Coordination Board
The Wales Electoral Coordination Board is in a unique position to provide a link between governments and Returning Officers in Wales and to provide advice on the delivery of elections and introduction of electoral reforms.
We continue to recommend that the Board should be strengthened and that it should have a statutory role, similar to the role of the Electoral Management Board in Scotland.
The capacity and resilience of electoral administration teams and suppliers are significant risks for future polls
Recommendation 4: Build resilience and capacity for electoral administration
We have repeatedly highlighted concerns about the resilience and capacity of electoral administration structures in the UK, which are coupled with the challenges of delivering elections within an outdated and increasingly complex electoral law framework.
We will work in partnership with the Wales Electoral Coordination Board and the wider electoral community to develop and deliver proposals to support resilient electoral services for the future but this approach will need to be supported through appropriate resourcing.
Late confirmation of legislation and interventions made it harder for Returning Officers to plan in some areas
On 26 February 2021, Welsh Government confirmed that the Senedd election would go ahead on 6 May and provided £1.5 million to support Returning Officers to secure venues, staffing and run Covid-19 secure elections. Cabinet Office provided additional funds to support the running of the Police and Crime Commissioner election.
The Coronavirus Act 2020 (Emergency Bill) was introduced on 16 March giving the Llywydd powers to postpone the election, in the event this was required in the interests of public health.
The conduct order setting out the rules for the election did not receive royal assent until 18 March, only four days before the date for publishing the notice of election and seven weeks before polling day.
In addition to our usual core suite of guidance and resources to support administrators with the delivery of elections, we also worked with public health bodies, the UK and Welsh Governments and the electoral community to develop and publish supplementary guidance to support the delivery of Covid-19 safe elections.
This was issued on a rolling basis from September 2020, and was informed by both the requirements of administrators and the latest expert advice from public health bodies. It was kept under review throughout the election period, and was updated to reflect the legislative changes to the nominations and proxy voting process as a result of Covid-19.
Many electoral administrators said they found that uncertainty about the elections made it difficult for them to plan effectively. Three-quarters of administrators (75%) who responded to our survey after the elections said that they felt the initial uncertainty about whether the elections would go ahead made it difficult for them to plan.
The particular circumstances that led to the development and introduction of changes to electoral law ahead of the May 2021 polls were unprecedented. While the legislative changes due to Covid-19 were understandable they demonstrated, in practice, the risks and challenges of introducing late legislation. The timing of these changes created additional challenges and risks for the delivery of the elections. It affected when Electoral Commission guidance and resources to support the delivery of the polls, such as amended nomination forms, could be provided and when electoral administrators could implement them.
Late confirmation of legislation and interventions made it harder for Returning Officers to plan in some areas breakdown
Voting processes generally ran smoothly despite challenging conditions
The planning and preparation before the elections was shown to be worthwhile by the limited number of issues with the delivery of voting processes on polling day.
Voting processes generally ran smoothly despite challenging conditions breakdown
Election teams updated count processes to support social distancing while maintaining transparency
Some authorities’ usual count centres were in use as mass vaccination centres so alternative venues needed to be found which would be large enough to allow for social distancing of both count staff and observers. The minimum PPE requirements agreed upon by the Wales Electoral Coordination Board were implemented across all count centres in Wales.
Count centres adhered to all social distancing measures set out in Welsh Government guidance and reflected the supplementary guidance published by the Commission. This included:
- prominent signage reminding people to keep a two metre distance apart
- ensuring everyone at the count wore a face covering at all times (unless exempt)
- one way systems and a separate entrance and exit
- using perspex screens to separate count staff from observer
Overall, new innovations introduced at count venues to address the need for social distancing were largely seen as a welcome addition to the process. For example, in Ceredigion County Council2 in order to address the fact that a limited number of candidates and agents were able to be in the count centre, activities were live streamed to them in an adjacent hall within the count venue.
A camera above each count table allowed attendees in an adjacent hall to have full sight of the verification and count process for each table. The candidates and agents were able to request that the angles be changed as required, and this was done remotely. Doubtful ballot papers were also placed on a visualiser and the images shown on screens for the candidates and agents to see.
These measures helped ensure social distancing could be maintained, while also ensuring that the count remained open and transparent.