These elections were very well run by staff who were faced by an extraordinary situation. The Covid security put in place for the elections was impressive and generally followed the recommendations of Public Health Bodies and the UK’s Electoral Commission.
The nature of many polling places, especially in smaller communities, can mean that the social distancing expected was difficult to deliver at times, but elections teams used local resources well to either combine polling stations or to manage access in as Covid secure manner as possible. This was especially difficult in mobile polling stations such as portacabins, where distancing was challenging. This was usually overcome by limiting the number of voters allowed in polling stations at any one time, which did lead to significant queues in some circumstances. At times these restrictions also limited access to some polling stations for observer teams, a crucial part of the electoral process.
Observers did note that quite often Covid security seemed to take precedence over electoral regulations. Our observer teams regularly see family voting in polling stations, where one member of a family influences or guides another on the way to cast their vote. Our teams also observed a notable number of voters being turned away because they had attended the wrong polling station, were unregistered, or had a postal vote which precluded them from voting in person. In addition, in some instances Covid security measures such as distancing stickers on the floor, Perspex screens and posters were taken down before the close of polls at 10pm. It was also noted that on some occasions polling staff’s attempts to distance from voters exacerbated confusions over the multiple elections being contested, their relevant ballot papers and how voters were to correctly mark their preferences.
We also note that several of our observer teams deemed polling at a significant number of polling stations to be unsuitable for disabled access. This, of course, includes wheelchair access, but also the location of polling booths and how they can be reached by voters with limited mobility.
Finally, our observer teams in Ynys Môn and Arfon observed that one candidate, Ms Michelle Brown (Independent), was not included on the ballot papers for the North Wales regional list. Polling staff asked voters to write Ms Brown’s name at the bottom of their ballot paper and mark an X next to this if they wished to vote for her. However, our teams observed that this did not always happen.
- Presently, nominations require a so-called ‘wet signature’. We would encourage legislators to allow nominations to be conducted digitally, as councils are accepting bank transfers for deposits for the May elections. Many documents are signed digitally today, and it seems a reasonable use of modern technology to allow parties and individuals seeking election to be nominated using a digital signature sent from a known email contact.
- We would encourage polling staff to take longer explaining the process to first time voters including 16-17-year-olds, especially concerning the voting system, as we identified some confusion with this group which led to the opportunity for, and evidence of, family voting when they often asked their parent or relative for advice on how to cast their ballot once they had entered the polling booth.
These voters often received guidance on how to complete their ballot paper, often unsolicited, and this is an area we would encourage voters and staff to have more awareness of as to not limit the secrecy of the ballot for this group.
- Family voting, where one voter guides or oversees the vote of another person, continues to be a challenge and we recommend that staff are trained to identify it and to deal with it. We believe there is even more inhibition to interrupt this practice, at the moment, as it could require staff to physically intervene at a polling booth which could conflict with social distancing. As staff have been encouraged to stay behind their Perspex screen they have not intervened when they have seen the practice. But we also believe, because staff have been occupied with more duties than usual, that they have not identified family voting as they have not been focusing on the voters’ behaviour with a more constant stream of voters.
- Whilst information officers have been brought in specifically to advise voters presenting themselves at polling stations during the pandemic, we believe they would be an asset in all future elections, to assist voters in understanding the process from the moment they arrive. This additional member of staff could also be used to help prevent cases of Family Voting and ensure votes are placed into the correct ballot box, in polling stations with multiple boxes. This would be especially useful when multiple polls are being held on the same day as was the case at these elections.
- We would recommend that Returning Officers remind polling staff that observers are legally allowed to enter the polling place and safe mechanisms for them to do so should be in place. In some council areas designated safe areas were set out for observation, distanced from others whereas in other councils our presence was very much questioned. Suitable venues should be used as polling stations to make this safe in the current context and moving forwards.
- As things stand those who complete their postal vote incorrectly receive notification of this up to three months after the election. With increased use of postal votes in this election we believe there will be a significant increase in those that are disqualified due to incorrectly completed personal identifiers. We would encourage legislators to enact legislation to allow those who have not complied, and become effectively disenfranchised, to require returning officers to reissue postal votes to this group of voters to allow them, before polling day, to have their vote again.
- Overnight counting was not used in this election, and we believe, with the necessary security in place, that council staff and counting staff found this a much more conducive working environment than potentially exceptionally long counts through the night. We would recommend that next day counting, for Welsh elections, should be used in future elections as well.