Elections and COVID-19: how can next May’s polls go ahead safely and democratically during a pandemic?

Elections set to take place across the UK in May 2020 were postponed for 12 months due to COVID-19. Election administrators and policymakers now have less than eight months to prepare for the possibility of holding polls during a pandemic. Sarah Birch, co-author of a recent British Academy briefing on holding safe and democratic elections during COVID-19, discusses the key obstacles to a successful poll and offers some recommendations for making sure the May elections are fair and safe.

An election requires the largest peace-time mobilisation that any state has to undertake. Even at the best of times, this is a major administrative feat. Conducting an election during a pandemic is far more daunting still, as electoral authorities have to consider the health of voters, polling and counting staff and campaign organisers, together with the health of democracy. 

If an election is to serve democratic aims, it is hugely important that it is both fair and seen to be fair. Those running elections while COVID-19 remains a problem must clearly safeguard the process in terms of the health of those involved; they will also need to ensure popular confidence in procedures that will in some ways be different from what voters are used to. 

Any change to normal practices is bound to attract attention, and potentially suspicion. The recent British Academy report, How to hold elections safely and democratically during the COVID-19 pandemic’, indicates that there are several things that electoral authorities can do to make sure that COVID-specific measures work.

If the pandemic has not been vanquished by May 2021, these suggestions may be of use to elected representatives and administrators in Scotland, Wales, London and local authorities across England, all of whom will be making arrangements for polling. These recommendations are also relevant to countries around the world that are preparing elections over the coming months.

Firstly, it makes sense for electoral authorities to use strategies that are part of their existing toolkits, rather than trying out completely new ideas (such as internet voting) that cannot be tested properly in the time available. The UK has extensive experience of postal voting, so this is a tool that can be relied on and potentially promoted for wider use. 

It will not make sense to implement other changes to the electoral system at this point, such as the proposed introduction of ID at UK polling stations. Pandemic-related measures will be challenging enough to develop, introduce and communicate, without the government also trying to roll out a whole new way of voting.

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Election petitions remain important to the integrity of UK elections, but reforms are urgently needed

Wilks.HeegCaroline.Morris_webUntil recently, widespread confidence about the integrity of UK elections meant that almost no information was available about election petitions, the only legal mechanism through which a UK election result can be challenged. Stuart Wilks-Heeg and Caroline Morris present significant new data about elections petitions from 1900 to 2016. Their findings fill an important gap in our historical knowledge about electoral integrity and inform current debates about the need to reform the petition mechanism.

Beyond a few specialist election lawyers, knowledge of election petitions is rare. In its current form, as a private legal action heard by a special election court, the election petition was part of the Victorians’ efforts to tackle electoral corruption. As vote-buying and intimidation were eradicated, the mechanism was widely assumed to have become redundant. During the 20th century, the number of cases dwindled, and no systematic records were kept of legal challenges to election results. Among the few cases that attracted any attention, the best known related to the overturning of Tony Benn’s return at the 1961 Bristol South-East by-election, on the grounds that he was a member of the House of Lords.

However, since 2004, there has been a renewed interest in election petitions. The most obvious trigger was the re-emergence of petitions alleging large-scale corruption. Infamously, in election circles, Richard Mawrey QC’s (2005) judgment on the Aston and Bordesley Green election petitions referred to ‘evidence of electoral fraud that would disgrace a banana republic’. Petitions have also revealed failings in the running of elections. For instance, an election court voided a close result at the 2004 Hull City Council elections after finding that voters in Derringham ward had instead received postal ballots relating to the election in Marfleet ward. Continue reading