Our response to the Welsh government green paper consultation “Strengthening local government – Delivering for people”

Consultation Question 4

The consultation suggests holding any local government elections in June 2021.

Are there any reasons why June 2021 would not be a suitable date? If so, please suggest an alternative date with the reasons why that would be more suitable.

Welsh Government should give careful consideration to the very real risks of holding the local government elections in Wales in June 2021. Doing so would mean that these elections would be held shortly after the National Assembly for Wales elections, scheduled for May of the same year. A series of reforms have already been proposed for both sets of elections in Wales which will have an impact on voters, electoral administrators and campaigners. These include:

  • Significant changes to the franchise and the register
  • Potential reform of the voting system
  • Changes to the rules on campaigner spending

There would be a risk in holding two significant elections in such close proximity to one another, and this would be multiplied if we also see various reforms introduced for both elections at this time. Maintaining the current schedule, however, and holding the local government elections in May 2022 would reduce some of these risks. We have set out below what we consider to be the key risks of holding the elections in June 2021.

Voters

There would be two registration deadlines in close proximity which could lead to confusion for voters possibly resulting in some people not registering in time, or indeed not registering at all.

If the franchise is different for each set of elections then the public awareness campaign messages could also be different for each election. This could lead to voters not knowing whether they are entitled to vote in the National Assembly for Wales elections, the local government elections or both. 

If changes to the franchise are introduced then there would be new groups of voters voting for the very first time.

There will be different ballot papers and voting systems for each election which could be further exacerbated if new voting systems are introduced for these elections.

In advance of the elections in 2021, we would need to run a campaign to raise awareness of:

  • the polls – including when these would take place;
  • the need to register;
  • the deadline to register;
  • how to vote in the polls;

If changes to the franchise are agreed, we would also run public awareness campaigns to explain these changes.

Electoral administrators

If the local government elections are held in June 2021, then the Welsh Government would need to ensure that Returning Officers and their staff are properly resourced to enable to them to manage these risks and ensure that the electoral events run successfully. The complexity and workload for administrators in holding two elections in such close proximity would be significant. In addition to this, if any changes to the franchise are agreed, administrators would already be adapting to new systems and rules and so there would be an impact on the elections software and an increase in the
support required by elections staff in any case.

It should also be acknowledged that Returning Officers and electoral administrators are faced with reduced resources and a growing number of skilled professionals leaving local authority elections teams. They are also increasingly reliant on a relatively small pool of specialist software and print management suppliers.

If the decision is taken to hold the local government elections in June 2021 then it will be particularly important that Welsh Government work with the Wales Electoral Coordination Board to ensure a coherent and coordinated approach.

Campaigners

Two elections in close proximity will result in different and potentially conflicting campaign messages for the May Welsh general election and the June local government elections, which could lead to confusion among voters as to who is standing in each of the elections.

There would also be an impact on political parties. Some parties, especially the smaller ones, could have difficulty in finding the resources to deliver an effective campaign across the country for two sets of separate elections in such close proximity.

Regulated periods

If National Assembly for Wales elections take place on 6 May 2021, followed by local government elections in June 2021, there is a risk that campaigners will be subject to complex spending rules.

The spending rules would be even more complex if the next scheduled UK Parliamentary general election (UKPGE) takes place in May 2022 as provided for as a result of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act. This is because the UKPGE regulated period for parties would overlap with the date for the local government elections. This is a summary of some of the implications:

Scenario 1: National Assembly for Wales in May 2021, local government elections in June 2021 and a UK Parliamentary general election on 5 May 2022

  • The political party return for the Assembly election would need to include some spending undertaken on local government election campaigning.
  • After polling day for the Assembly election, further spending would need to be reported in the UKPGE return for parties, which should be submitted in 2022.
  • This would mean some spending on local government elections would be reported in two different returns and with different timeframes. This could be confusing for campaigners, and there would be a heightened risk that spending would be misreported.
  • There would be similar effects for the rules for non-party campaigners at local government elections, resulting in complex rules for campaigners. 

Scenario 2: National Assembly for Wales elections in May 2021, local government elections in June 2021, but no UK Parliamentary general election in 2022

  • The reporting deadlines for spending by candidates at the Assembly elections would be close to polling day for the local government elections in June 2021.
  • Campaigners could have fewer resources to focus on campaigning at the local elections, if they are compiling spending returns for the Assembly elections at the same time.
  • The political party return for the Assembly election would need to include some spending undertaken on local election campaigning between 6 January and 6 May 2021. These rules could cause confusion for parties, candidates and agents, and campaigners, where there would be a heightened risk that spending would be misreported.

We recommend that:

  • Welsh Government gives very careful consideration to the real risks of holding the local government elections in Wales in June 2021.
  • Welsh Government works closely with the Electoral Commission and all other key partners through the WECB to measure the impact and mitigate the risks;
  • Welsh Government consults campaigners on the implications of holding consecutive polls in May and June 2021.
  • The rules on how the election will be conducted should be clear from at least six months before polling day: by early December 2020 for an early June 2021 poll.
  • There is a clear decision about timing sufficiently far in advance, so that campaigners can plan how their campaigns will comply with the spending and reporting rules that would apply from January 2021
  • Appropriate funding must be made available for public awareness activities to ensure voters understand the election process, with particular emphasis on any changes to the franchise and the voting system if these reforms are introduced.
  • Appropriate funding must be made available to electoral administrators so that they can deliver both sets of elections.

Consultation Question 6

What are your views on the approach which should be taken to determining the parameters of electoral reviews?

The Local Government Boundary Commission for Wales will need to ensure that any reviews are concluded (and the proposals approved by the Minister) sufficiently ahead of any poll that the boundaries will come into effect for, in order that administrators, candidates and parties are able to plan for the election based on the new boundaries. For example, ensuring the boundaries are approved in advance of 1 December in the year preceding the election would enable Electoral Registration Officers to publish their 1 December registers based on the revised boundaries and supply these to political parties and campaigners. Electoral Registration Officers will also have a view on how far in advance of the 1 December register reviews should be concluded to enable them to carry out the necessary preparations.

I hope that you find this response useful and we look forward to working with the Welsh Government going forward. If you would like any additional information, please contact Rhydian Thomas, Head of Electoral Commission, Wales at the email address below: rthomas@electoralcommission.org.uk.

Last updated: 19 August 2019
Next review: 18 August 2020