For the sixth time since devolution in 1999, voters in Wales have the opportunity to participate in a Wales-wide election, with all 60 seats of the Welsh Parliament in play. Elections across the UK were postponed last May due to COVID-19, but the ones set for this spring look like they will go ahead. Toby James and Alistair Clark argue that Wales has taken significant steps to ensure that voters are able to participate in a safe and fair election.
To postpone or not to postpone? That has been the question facing elections scheduled for May across the UK. All of these contests are important, but those being held in Wales have a special importance for Welsh citizens. They will have the opportunity to elect all 60 members to the Senedd Cymru (Welsh Parliament). It will be the sixth general election since devolution in 1999 – but the first time that 16- and 17-year-olds will be able to take part.
The pandemic, however, has led to arguments about whether elections should be postponed. There is a health argument for postponement. Restrictions have been put on many aspects of life in order to prevent the spread of the virus. But the quality of the election can also be compromised by the pandemic. Restrictions on campaigning might be in place, such as bans on leafleting, which smaller parties have complained are unfair on them. So what should be done?
The evidence from around the world
As part of an ESRC-funded research project, we have been tracking how elections have been run around the world since the pandemic began, in collaboration with International IDEA and the Electoral Integrity Project. We have published case studies that have described the experience on the ground, alongside data on the measures put in place to make elections COVID-safe.
Many countries did postpone for a while. Elections have been postponed in at least 75 countries since last February. But at the same time, over 100 eventually held their contests. Proposals to postpone elections are at first glance associated with undermining the democratic process and denying citizens their right to vote. Postponements, as was shown in a recent article in Election Law Journal, are not all just power grabs by would-be dictators or incumbent governments. They can be for multiple different reasons, and there is a humanitarian case for postponement where there is a threat to human life.
Postponements are also justified where electoral integrity is threatened by emergency conditions. Voter turnout has been lower during the pandemic, most likely because citizens are concerned about their health. Opportunities to campaign are often truncated – and there are likely to be problems with electoral management. Voting involves staffing thousands of polling stations with poll workers, who our own research shows are often retired and elderly.
Postponements should only be short, however. Delays as long as a year, which were seen in democratically unsteady Hong Kong, are rarely necessary. The USA, UK and Australia voiced concern about these delays, and rightly so, because it seemed as if the Chinese government may have been delaying the polls for political reasons. Unnecessary delays have also been seen within so-called established democracies – the UK government delayed the May 2020 local elections for a whole year, despite recommendations to hold them earlier. Holding them in the autumn of 2020, in retrospect, would have allowed democracy to continue.
But elections can and should be made COVID-safe. There is a need for inclusive voting practices and measures to reduce any voting inequalities that may result from holding an election during a pandemic. Health and safety measures can be put in place such as PPE, hand sanitisation and social distancing, as they have been around the world. Where possible, it makes sense to encourage citizens to cast their ballot from home through the post. Spreading voting over several days also enables more people to cast their vote, without compromising social distancing. The US election, much cited as an example for how elections can continue in a pandemic, had 65 million votes cast via the post – and 35 million voted early in person.
Wales gets it right?
Wales has just passed the Welsh Elections (Coronavirus) Act to deal with the uncertainties thrown up by the pandemic. There are three reasons why this is an especially effective solution.
First, it commits to holding the election, which means that democracy can continue. This is important because citizens choosing their representatives and holding the Welsh government to account is the lifeblood of democracy, which should not ordinarily be delayed. The Act also makes provisions for the election to be postponed for up to six months if the situation with the pandemic requires this. This means that late, last-minute legislation will not be needed if there is a sudden surge in cases or a new variant in Wales. There is a plan B. And Wales can implement it quickly and effectively.
Second, the Welsh government cannot make a decision to postpone the election unilaterally. There is always a danger that an incumbent may try to hold, delay or even fast-track an election to suit its political interests. The UK government will probably keep an eye on public opinion polls as it considers whether to still hold the local elections in May. They will be the first electoral test for the Johnson government and its management of the pandemic and Brexit. These incentives will be there in Wales too, but the Act requires the government to first consult with the Chief Medical Officer for Wales, and then approach the independent Llywydd (Presiding Officer of the Senedd). The Llywydd would then put the proposal to the whole of the current Senedd – two-thirds of whom would have to agree. This will be a cross-party decision, compared to the situation in England where the government has used its majority and secondary legislation, which has limited scrutiny.
Thirdly, the Act enables early voting. Welsh ministers may, by regulations made by statutory instrument, provide that polling take place on one or more additional days. These additional days should fall in the period of seven days immediately before the main day of the poll. This has not been taken forward in England, because of claims of the cost and the lack of necessity. There are imperfections in postal voting, however, which underline the need for early voting. There is currently a requirement that voters download, print off and post application forms to be able to vote by post. Many people will not have access to printers during long lockdowns. The deadline is also likely to creep up on the electorate. Our research has often shown that electoral officials receive late applications for postal votes – and late postal votes. There will be major demand, which will put a significant strain on electoral officials. The international experience has been that early voting is much valued by citizens and is therefore worth the investment.
Wales therefore, like Scotland, seems to have the bases covered for the forthcoming elections. It should trigger a postponement – and a move to early voting if the circumstances require it – to enable the best possible democratic event.
A stark contrast to England?
The management of the situation in Wales can be contrasted with how the UK government has proceeded with preparations for local elections in England. As mentioned above, the UK government scheduled a very long postponement for the May 2020 elections. There was then a very muddled set of communications throughout January about whether the elections would continue or be postponed. Reports in some sections of the media suggested that they would be postponed, but other outlets suggested they would not, with contradictory reports appearing even over the course of the same weekend. On 5 February, nine months after the postponed May 2020 polls, the government set out a polls delivery plan.
A bipartisan approach does not appear to have been taken. The government has issued instructions about campaign regulations to other parties, as far as we are aware, rather than consulting with them. Expectations about how the polls will be held and the campaigning restrictions seem to have been provided to Conservative party activists before those of other parties. There was no working group involving other parties and civil society groups to give input into the planning, which was the case in Wales. England has maintained its traditional pattern of decision making through a closed network of actors. Legislation will also be delivered by statutory instrument, for which there is less scrutiny. The government has a sizeable majority in the Commons and there are famously no vetoes for minority or opposition parties in Westminster politics. The approach in England can also be contrasted with Scotland, where legislation was passed unanimously.
The UK government has also said that it does ‘not consider there is a need for early voting’ because citizens can vote by post or proxy, and that this would require additional venues and staffing. Early voting has been successfully run in the past in the UK. The experience of the US election is testament to how many citizens will use this option during a pandemic. There are also imaginative solutions for making early voting happen which can reduce the need for resources, such as mobile vote stations or pre-booking, which was introduced in the Portuguese presidential election. Ultimately, the late nature of legislation and preparations would now make this problematic for May, but it should be taken forward in the future.
Wales, like England, will be conducting a complex set of polls because of the simultaneously scheduled Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) elections. Westminster’s decision not to postpone these elections therefore strongly incentivises Wales not to postpone Senedd elections– otherwise it would have two separate sets of polls, rather than one. Westminster does not seem to be offering Wales, as far as we are aware, the option to postpone these too. Wales therefore has devolved power to run elections for the Senedd, but with major constraints. There is some irony here. The PCC elections have not been a successful democratic enterprise so far – and became famous in Wales for zero turnout in a polling station in 2012 – but seem to be unhelpfully constraining the Senedd’s ability to respond to the pandemic autonomously.
Whatever decisions are made in all elections, the pandemic polls show the importance of early planning. Policy makers need to adopt electoral risk management strategies to plan for the unexpected. The Welsh Elections (Coronavirus) Act is a very good step to enable this.
More information about the research project on which this postis based can be found here: https://www.electoralintegrityproject.com/elections-and-covid19
This is the latest in a series of Unit posts about the continuing effects of COVID-19 on the constitution. For other blogs in the series see here.
About the authors
Toby S. James is Professor of Politics and Public Policy at the University of East Anglia, and Deputy Director of the Electoral Integrity Project.
Alistair Clark is Reader in Politics at the University of Newcastle.