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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‘Post-truth’ politics is a debasement of standards in public life

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Verbal dexterity, inconsistency and ‘spin’ are part and parcel of normal politics but the exaggerations and distortions of the EU referendum campaign has led to concerns about ‘post-truth’ politics. Nicholas Allen and Sarah Birch write there is a need for someone to provide a moral lead, and argue the Committee for Standards in Public Life could play a valuable role by establishing some relevant basic markers.

The recent EU referendum campaign has focused and fuelled concerns about the rise of ‘post-truth’ politics in Britain. Politicians seem readier than ever to base their campaigns on grossly distorted ‘facts’, dismiss impartial expertise and evidence, and make manifestly contradictory promises. To some extent, these concerns are nothing new. Verbal dexterity, inconsistency and ‘spin’ are part and parcel of normal politics. Coalition-building requires leaders to create and take advantage of wiggle room.

But as it has broken other things, so the referendum seems to have broken new ground in British politics. Both campaigns made exaggerated and misleading pronouncements, with Vote Leave’s claims about imminent Turkish membership and the £350-million-a-week of EU membership being perhaps the most blatant.

Then there was the case of Michael Gove, who, during a televised debate, dismissed his leadership ambition by emphasising his unfitness for office and declared he was ‘absolutely not’ going to stand in any future Conservative leadership campaign. There was no ambiguity in Gove’s declaration, no wiggle room. Many journalists noted the subsequent u-turn, when Gove decided to stand after all, but then they moved on.

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The number of ‘safe’ seats should be reduced to strengthen UK democracy and increase participation

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Ron Johnston, Charles Pattie and David Rossiter have argued that an IPPR report’s proposal that constituency boundaries should be gerrymandered to produce more marginal seats would be neither feasible nor sensible. The authors of the report, Sarah Birch and Mathew Lawrence, respond here. They suggest that a boundary delimitation outcome entailing more competitive results would not necessarily be more ‘political’, but it would be more democratic.

The UK has become significantly more unequal politically over the course of the past 30 years. Whereas in the 1970s and 1980s there were only small differences in rates of electoral participation between young and old,  advantaged and disadvantaged groups, by 2015 these differences had turned into gaping chasms. Fewer than half of 18–24 year-olds voted in the recent general election, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of ‘AB’ individuals who were registered to vote actually did so, against just over half of ‘DE’ registered voters.

Differential electoral participation matters for democracy. If certain sectors of the electorate are known to vote with lower frequency, politicians are less likely to consider their interests when making policy. The result is policy that fails the inclusivity test, and also increased disaffection among members of those groups who – rightly – feel neglected by politicians. Disaffection in turn strengthens alienation and reinforces electoral abstention, generating a vicious cycle of under-participation and under-representation.

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