This project comes at a critical and challenging time not only for elections and elections staff but for wider society, as restrictions on citizens’ freedoms are in place to help prevent the spread of Covid-19. Due to this, our observation methodology was altered to reflect these health considerations to ensure the health of the wider community, observers, and elections staff.
A small selection of in-person observations were conducted across several council areas, alongside meetings which were conducted online with local elections staff. These meetings were with:
• Aberdeen City Council
• Aberdeenshire Council
• Argyll and Bute Council
• Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (Western Isles)
• City of Edinburgh Council
• Highland Council
• Midlothian Council
• Orkney Islands Council
• Perth & Kinross Council
• West Lothian Council
The council teams provided our team with key information concerning changes not only in the new procedures put in place for polling day but also levels of postal voting and other administrative alterations undertaken. These meetings also discussed the administrative and logistical changes elections staff had made to ensure the voting process could be conducted in a safe manner, how these changes were decided upon, and challenges staff anticipated in advance of the wider scale elections to be held next May for the Scottish Parliament. A full list of the by-elections that took place can be seen in Appendix B. Two small teams of two observers made 85 separate observations of polling stations across the Scottish by-elections. They visited:
• Ellon & District (Aberdeenshire) – 15th October 2020
• Craigentinny/Duddingston (Edinburgh) – 12th November 2020
• Thorniewood (North Lanarkshire Council) – 4th March 2021
• Fortissat (North Lanarkshire Council) – 4th March 2021
• Livingston South (West Lothian) – 11th March 2021
• Leaderdale and Melrose (Scottish Borders) – 11th March 2021
• Helensburgh and Lomond South (Argyll and Bute) – 18th March 2021
• Ballieston (Glasgow) – 18th March 2021
• Partick East/Kelvindale (Glasgow) – 18th March 2021
• Almond & Earn (Perth & Kinross) – 25th March 2021
• Midlothian East (Midlothian) – 25th March 2021
Each observation was conducted with two observers to allow for objective observation and the observers then agreed their opinions of the electoral process before submitting data to the central team. The observations generally took between fifteen and thirty minutes per polling station as the observers were asked to ensure that they attempted to see the entire process, which included staff greeting electors on arrival at the polling station. As part of the process of exploring election observation in the present context we trialled shorter times in polling stations in Aberdeenshire.
Our teams of observers attended polling stations across those areas identified in dark green and held meetings with other councils, coloured in light green.
Those recommendations we made in our interim statement, made on 11th January, are now either enacted or no longer relevant as the May 6th Scottish Parliamentary elections are proceeding as planned. However, we wish to make several limited recommendations ahead of those elections to improve the process for voters and elections staff.
- We would encourage legislators to allow nominations to be conducted digitally, as councils are accepting bank transfers for deposits for the May elections.
- 16–17-year-old voters were seen voting as newly enfranchised Scottish voters. We would encourage polling staff to take longer explaining the process, especially the voting system, to these voters 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.
- Family voting 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.
COVID-19 related recommendations
- Mask wearing is becoming commonplace in the public domain and the public were invariably seen to be wearing their masks in polling stations. We would recommend, to increase public trust, and to limit the spread of any virus, that polling station staff only remove their masks when outside the polling stations.
- Screens were generally in use across all but one council. However, they were invariably circumvented by staff and voters so that they could converse. We recommend that staff are more rigorous in staying behind the screens which are provided.
- 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.
- We believe Returning Officers should 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.
Watch our video report for the Scottish By-Elections 2020-2021