The scene was set for May 6 2021 to be a historic day for democracy in Wales. It would be the first time that 16 and 17 year olds would be able to vote in an election.
It still might be. Although the pandemic has forced the country into lockdowns, the Welsh government says it is committed to the elections going ahead. The Senedd has passed legislation that would enable voting over several days, with safety in mind. However, that same legislation also makes it possible to delay the vote for up to six months.
Although we naturally should always want elections to be held, there are strong arguments for delaying the polls this time. Holding the election will bring together millions of people. Roughly 625,000 people entered a polling station at the last Senedd election in May 2016 (a further 395,878 voted by post). Add to this the thousands of poll workers, presiding officers, counting officers, let alone campaigners outside the polling stations, or a family member hanging around outside to hold the dog, and you have a lot of people coming together. Coronavirus spreads quickly.
Should the advice be from the Medical Office of Wales that a delay is necessary to protect human life, then democracy will have to wait a little while. Election postponements are not always power grabs. There have indeed been many delays around the world during the pandemic, with elections in at least 75 countries being postponed in the last year. Most of these were reorganised relatively quickly.
It’s also harder to hold a high-quality election in a pandemic. Some groups, candidates or parties may be left at a disadvantage. There have already been claims that bans on leafleting are unfair to small parties. Experience from Europe showed that lockdowns prevented the opposition campaigning in Poland, giving the incumbent president, who still regularly appeared on TV, an advantage.
There is also a danger that people, especially those at higher risk, may be put off voting. Voter turnout has been much lower during the pandemic than it otherwise might have been. Most European nations that have held a parliamentary election since the start of the crisis have seen fewer people participate.
Although there are many factors that push turnout up and down, there does seem to be a pandemic decline, probably because people are worried about catching the virus at polling stations.
Elections are also simply more difficult to organise in a pandemic. They rely on an army of poll workers who, research shows, are often elderly and retired – and therefore more vulnerable to COVID. Although the vaccine roll-out is making progress, people are likely to think twice about signing up to work on polling day. Schools and parents may also be reluctant to allow school buildings to be used as polling stations.
How the polls can be held
While social distancing measures and hand sanitiser go a long way to improving safety, early voting is a more powerful tool in a government’s kit. That’s because it makes elections safer, with less risk that turnout will decline.
The argument made for going ahead with the May elections in Wales (and the rest of the UK) is often that the US managed to hold a national election in November. American voters, however, made heavy use of postal voting and early voting. Over 65 million people voted through the post, while a further 36 million voted ahead of the day of the election at specially arranged polling stations.
It would be logistically difficult to enable early voting in Wales at this point because of the need to find extra venues to host polling stations. But this is an important step to prevent a decline in turnout – which suggests it might be worth delaying the May vote.
Political parties should work together to try to reach a consensus about how the election should be run, and whether a delay is necessary. Wales, in particular, has done good work to avoid the risk of the Welsh government delaying (or fast tracking) in a way that might maximise its own political advantage. Local elections in England may yet be postponed by the Conservative government acting unilaterally, but in Wales, the Welsh government must first consult with the chief medical officer for Wales and the independent presiding officer of the Senedd. Then, two thirds of the Senedd would have to vote to agree to the date change.
Wales’ election on May 6 might, therefore, be delayed. But if it is, and if early voting procedures are put in place, then the decision would be through consensus and in line with the lessons that the world has learnt about how to run an election in 2020. It can therefore still be a historic day to be proud of.