How will voting go ahead during Covid? This is how UK elections 2021 will take place during a pandemic

The Scottish and Welsh parliamentary elections will take place on 6 May as well as the London Mayoral vote, local council elections in England and the Hartlepool by-election – amid the coronavirus crisis. How will it work?
Watch more of our videos on Shots!
and live on Freeview channel 276
Visit Shots! now

It’s a significant date for Scotland England and Wales, as on Thursday 6 May a host of elections will take place across the three nations.

Roughly 48 million people will be eligible to cast their ballots on that date, and around 5,000 candidates will then be elected to represent them.

But what’s different about these elections to ones in years gone by is that they are being held during a worldwide pandemic that has cost hundreds of thousands of lives in the UK alone.

How will voting in the UK work during the Covid pandemic? (Shutterstock)How will voting in the UK work during the Covid pandemic? (Shutterstock)
How will voting in the UK work during the Covid pandemic? (Shutterstock)

The rise in Covid cases in India has also been linked to election campaigns, with some fearing that the upcoming elections here could cause a spike in cases.

So, how do you hold a successful election during such a health crisis?

NationalWorld takes a look.

Which elections are taking place?

These are the elections taking place in May (Credit: Kim Mogg)These are the elections taking place in May (Credit: Kim Mogg)
These are the elections taking place in May (Credit: Kim Mogg)

In both Scotland and Wales, parliamentary elections are due to take place on Thursday.

Members of parliament - 129 MSPs in Scotland and 60 MSs in Wales - will be elected by voters to Holyrood and the Senedd respectively.

The two parliaments are responsible for devolved issues, such as health, housing and education.

On the same day, the local elections in England will happen, with 5,000 seats up for grabs across 143 councils.

Councillors are in charge of local services like social care, libraries, waste collection and sports facilities.

Meanwhile, people in London will head to the polls to elect a new mayor and 25 members of the London Assembly.

The London Mayoral election had already faced delay due to the pandemic, as it was originally scheduled for March last year.

There will also be elections to choose 12 mayors in different cities across England.

Police and crime commissioners will be elected on Thursday in England and Wales, too - 39 to be exact.

And finally, a high-profile by-election is to take place in Hartlepool to choose who represents the town in Westminster, following the resignation of Labour MP Mike Hill in March.

How will the votes go ahead during Covid?

It’s not the first time that elections will be going ahead during coronavirus.

Other countries in the world have managed it, like New Zealand, which had very few cases of the virus, and even the US, when voters went to the polls in the grip of a severe nationwide outbreak.

Elections have also successfully taken place in Scotland, during a number of council by-elections.

And there was never any indication that the Scottish Parliament election would be delayed, with Nicola Sturgeon saying back in January that she could see “no reason” for any postponement, while the Scottish Conservatives backed her position.

Still, there were contingency plans introduced to allow the vote to be pushed back by up to six months, through a vote of parliament or, in extreme circumstances, via a decree from Presiding Officer Ken Macintosh.

However, it is hoped that the UK’s strong vaccine rollout, combined with a gradual and cautious emergence from lockdown, will allow each election to go ahead in a safe manner.

Will more people vote by post?

The issue for all the elections taking place on Thursday is whether there will be as many voters going down to polling stations compared to previous years.

Older people are traditionally more likely to vote during elections, but this is the demographic that is more likely to get severely ill from coronavirus.

In turn, some older voters could be worried about leaving their homes - but that is where postal votes come in.

The different governments had been actively encouraging the public to register for postal ballots due to lockdown restrictions.

In Scotland, that led to a record number of people signing up for a postal ballot for the Holyrood election, with the Electoral Commission announcing on 13 April that more than one million postal votes had been registered.

This means that a huge portion of the final result will have already been cast at the time polling stations open in the country at 7am.

What about in-person voting?

Covid safety measures will be in place at counting venues across the country on the day of the votes.

Local councils in England have been reassuring residents that polling stations will be safe places to go down to on Thursday.

Measures to keep people safe will include one way systems, plastic screens, enhanced cleaning, social distancing and limited numbers within polling stations at any one time.

Face masks will be mandatory, while voters will also be encouraged to bring their own pen or pencil and ensure they are socially-distanced from others at the polling venue.

People have also been able to apply for a proxy vote in the different elections, which means nominating somebody to vote on their behalf.

New emergency proxy voting rules allow anybody forced to self-isolate because of Covid to nominate another voter up to 5pm on election day.

The rules also allow people to change their chosen proxy voter if they are affected by coronavirus.

How have campaigners adapted?

It’s not only voters who have been affected by the pandemic, with candidates in all elections unable to carry out much of the usual election activity.

Previous elections have seen politicians knocking on doors, shaking hands and kissing babies.

But hustings and campaigning have had to be extremely toned down in all three nations, while large gatherings continue to be banned under coronavirus rules.

The UK Government allowed candidates to begin campaigning safely from 8 March ahead of the local elections, permitting one-to-one activities such as leafleting and canvassing.

This meant campaigners were able to engage with voters on their doorsteps, while maintaining social distancing and not entering people’s homes.

In Scotland, a differing lockdown exit strategy has meant much of the campaigning has taken place digitally and away from voters.

While leafleting was permitted from 15 March, door-to-door canvassing was only given the go ahead from mid-April, and there are still no street stalls or usual big rallies allowed.

The government has said if at any point the infection rate in a local authority area exceeds 100 per 100,000 then canvassing will have to be halted.

Will Covid impact vote counting?

Coronavirus restrictions mean counting votes at each election is expected to take longer and could run into the weekend before any results are announced.

In Scotland, polling stations will be open on 6 May from 7am to 10pm.

However, this year there is no overnight count due to the safety measures in place – and, significantly, no exit poll.

Instead, counting will begin at 9am the next day on Friday 7 May, and although it is not clear how long this will take due to social distancing precautions, it is expected that counting will cease by 6pm.

Then, on Saturday 8 May, some areas will conduct their regional list counts and announce how many regional seats have been allocated to each party.

The results for all constituencies and regions should have been announced by the afternoon or evening on the 8th.

Related topics: