News  ⁄  Democracy & governance

May local elections to go ahead despite COVID-19 challenges

Ban on doorstep canvassing and door to door leaflet distribution likely to favour the two major parties on 6 May as postal and proxy voting encouraged in Exeter City Council, Devon County Council and Devon & Cornwall Police and Crime Commissioner elections.

Local elections   Exeter city council   Devon county council   Police & crime commissioner   Coronavirus pandemic  

The government has confirmed that local elections will go ahead as planned despite doubts over whether it would be possible to hold the ballots during the coronavirus pandemic. Exeter electors will be asked to vote for city and county councillors and the Devon & Cornwall Police and Crime Commissioner on 6 May.

Exeter usually elects three city councillors to serve four year terms in each of thirteen wards, a total of 39 councillors. A third of the seats, one in each ward, is normally contested in each of three years, with county council elections then held in the fourth year.

As the city council and police and crime commissioner elections should have been held in May last year but were delayed due to the pandemic, they will now take place at the same time as the scheduled county council elections. The city councillors and the police and crime commissioner will be elected for shortened three year terms to allow a subsequent return to the usual electoral cycle.

2016 Exeter City Council election results map2016 Exeter City Council election results. Source Wikipedia under Creative Commons license.

The thirteen Exeter City Council seats that are being contested are those which gained the most votes in the 2016 local elections, when the whole council was exceptionally elected at the same time following boundary changes. Labour are defending eleven seats and the Conservatives two.

There is also a by-election taking place in Mincinglake and Whipton following the death of a councillor. Voters in the ward will elect two city councillors with the person receiving the most votes serving a three year term and the runner-up a one year term.

Devon County Council elections for all 60 members will also take place on 6 May. 56 councillors represent single-member divisions and four represent Broadclyst and Exmouth, which have two councillors each.

The county council’s current composition is 42 Conservatives, 7 Labour Party, 6 Liberal Democrats, 2 Independents, 1 Green Party, 1 East Devon Alliance and 1 North Devon Liberal, following the 2017 elections before which boundary changes also took place.

Devon County Council does not administer Plymouth or Torbay, which are both unitary authorities and are holding elections on the same day.

The regional police and crime commissioner will be elected by everyone in Devon, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly at the same time.

2017 Devon County Council election results map2017 Devon County Council election results. Source Wikipedia under Creative Commons license.

Claire Wright, Independent county councillor for Otter Valley, said that independents and candidates from smaller parties are being disadvantaged by a ban on election leafleting and door to door campaigning.

She said: “Smaller parties and independent candidates rely on hand-delivering leaflets with a few of their helpers and spend weeks knocking doors and picking up and resolving issues. We do not have the resources to post leaflets or flood social media with advertising. Even if Independents did have this resource we’re not permitted to spend it.

“Each election candidate is held to strict spending limits by the Electoral Commission. The difference is that in addition to individual spending limits, the two main parties have vast central budgets that they’re also permitted to use.”

“This means they are likely to simply run their campaigns from central office online and by post. It would not be possible to post a leaflet to the six thousand or so properties in my county council division without breaching Electoral Commission rules.”

Kevin Mitchell, Liberal Democrat city councillor for St James and Duryard and leader of the progressive group on Exeter City Council, said: “The very least the government should do is allow all candidates a free post delivery as in general elections.

“Smaller parties and independent candidates have difficulty enough during normal elections raising funds. These new regulations will severely impede the ability of voters to know what is going on and who to vote for.”

Tom Hewat, Exeter Green Party election agent, said: “We sought advice from organisations such as Public Health England on delivering literature. The advice was clear: the risk of spreading or picking up COVID-19 while distributing literature is so small as to be of no concern.

“We accept that canvassing is not possible during lockdown. However, the ban on distributing literature door to door and allowing it only to be delivered by commercial companies has a strong whiff of a stitch up by the two largest parties.

“The government claims it wants to ensure a level playing field for those standing in this year’s local elections. But the game is currently rigged against smaller parties who don’t have large funds to draw on.”

Exeter polling station

The Government has defined new rules and is attempting to make polling stations safer so the elections can go ahead. On the current trajectory, all adults over 50 years of age will have been offered their first coronavirus vaccine jab by 15 April, three weeks before polling day.

The choice between voting in person and voting by postal or proxy vote will remain, and anyone who is self-isolating can request a proxy vote up to 5pm on polling day itself.

People who wish to vote in person will be encouraged to bring their own pencils or pens to mark ballot papers. Masks must be worn on the same basis as in any indoor public place. Hand sanitiser will be available and, where appropriate, screens and distance markings will be used inside polling stations, which will be cleaned regularly and ventilated as much as possible.

Cabinet Office Minister Chloe Smith said: “Everyone who feels comfortable going to a supermarket or a post office should also feel confident attending a polling station in May. We encourage anybody who is shielding, or who would prefer not to attend a polling station, to apply for a postal or proxy vote ahead of the polls.”

However Rob Hannaford, Exeter city councillor for Exwick and St Thomas and the Labour group leader at County Hall called the government’s approach “risky” and expressed concern about possible impact on turnout. He urged people to register for a postal vote: “The more people that vote early, safely from their homes, the more it will help ensure that polling day is more COVID-proofed and less busy, to help with waiting and queuing.”

Staff shortages and a lack of available polling stations have caused problems for officials. Additional costs for personal protective equipment will also have to be met from the £31 million of extra government funding that has been allocated to the elections.

Laura Lock, deputy chief executive of the Association of Electoral Administrators, said matters had been made more difficult by a government request that schools not be closed for use as polling stations and by the requisitioning of many other venues as testing or vaccination centres.

Limits on the number of people allowed at counts, which are expected to take longer than usual, may also have to be imposed.

Exeter City Council is administering all the elections that are taking place in the city on 6 May. Election notices including nominated candidates will be published on the city council website.

You must be on the electoral register in order to vote. You can register to vote online as well as check and update your details. You can apply to vote by post (for which the deadline is 5pm on Tuesday 20 April) and arrange to vote by proxy. The location of Exeter polling stations can be found by postcode search.

Records of previous elections held in the city are also published by the city council.


 is editor of Exeter Observer and a member and director of its publisher Exeter Observer Ltd.

 

 is a Local Democracy Reporting Service reporter based in Exeter.

 


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