There has been much debate over whether the Scottish Parliament elections should be postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Dr Alistair Clark (Newcastle University) argues that, for the most part, elections throughout the world have continued during the pandemic and parties can continue to campaign. So, what can expect from this election?
Held against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, the elections scheduled for 6th May 2021 will be elections unlike any other for the Scottish parliament. While there have been calls for the polls to be postponed, Scotland is nevertheless well prepared to hold these elections, with appropriate COVID preparations and legislation in place. Scottish election administrators and policymakers have been planning since at least mid-2020 to do so. This Blog examines what might be expected as Scotland prepares to hold this crucial poll.
For the most part, elections have continued across the world during the pandemic. Research carried out by Toby James (UEA), International IDEA and myself has shown that around 100 countries have held electoral events, up to and including national referendums and presidential elections. The main pattern has been of a short postponement to implement mitigations, followed by the elections themselves. There is now a year’s worth of international experience of holding elections under COVID which can be learnt from.
Will Parties Be Able To Campaign?
The main concern of parties and candidates is that they won’t be able to campaign as normal. What will change? Campaigns will look different. Given social distancing and travel restrictions, it is unlikely that the Holyrood campaign will see leaders’ tours around Scotland, by bus or helicopter. It is also highly unlikely that campaign rallies will be held, or leaders’ speeches with invited audiences packed both in front and behind the speechmaker. Local voter identification, door-knocking, and get out the vote efforts, where party activists descend on an area as a group, will likely also be hit.
This does not mean that parties cannot campaign. Indeed, the extent to which this has been given as a justification for postponement is unconvincing. The degree to which voters engage with leaders’ tours, speeches and the political theatre of campaigns can be overstated. Other major aspects of campaigning can, and should, continue. One of the main categories of campaign spending is already unsolicited mail to voters. This normally takes the form of direct mail to voters. There will likely be an upsurge in such mail during the election, and probably other leafleting as pandemic conditions, hopefully, improve towards May.
Similarly, increasingly important online campaigning will not be affected, and nor will the ability of leaders to take part in media events such as interviews and debates. These are already major ways in which parties communicate. While in-person audiences have become part of this, they are not necessary to it. Manifesto and poster launches will still be possible in some format.
COVID-19 and its mitigation measures are not going away anytime soon, vaccines or not. Parties need to learn to adapt how they communicate with voters for democracy to continue.
Increased Postal Voting
For voters, the main expectation is of an increase in levels of postal voting. This will help with social distancing. Postal voting has already been rising in Scotland (see figure 1), reaching around 18% in both the 2016 Holyrood contest, and the 2019 general election. The current expectation is that around 40% of votes in 2021 will be postal votes. This could impact upon turnout. Of the postal votes issued, 76.6% were returned in 2016, while 83.1% were returned in 2019.
Around 3% of postal votes were rejected in 2016 due to security mismatches with identifiers and failures to provide complete information. This could be vital in an election with a substantially increased number of postal votes. There may also be a rise in proxy voting, particularly for voters who may be shielding or isolating, or who have missed the postal vote deadline but can’t get to the polling station.
Figure 1: % postal votes, Scottish parliament elections
Source: Electoral Commission
The Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill, passed on a cross-party basis by the Scottish parliament on 23rd December provides for an all-postal ballot to be run if necessary. This would be logistically complex however, and the legislation allows for postponement of up to six months for the necessary preparations to be made.
A public education campaign for postal voting will be vital to the success of the elections and should be widely circulated.
Polling Places and Counts
Despite increased postal voting, local authorities still need to provide polling places. Scotland, unlike other parts of the UK, allowed some council by-elections to take place during late-2020. This has provided important experience of running elections under pandemic circumstances. Maintaining social distancing in polling places will be crucial. To help with this, there have been discussions among electoral administrators about restricting the number of voters allocated to each polling station. Such a process also helped limit queues during the 2014 independence referendum.
Voters will encounter one-way systems, with polling station staff sitting behind Perspex screens, and wearing appropriate PPE. Polling stations, voting booths and ballot boxes will be regularly sanitised. Voters will be expected to wear face coverings and to sanitise their hands both on entry to, and on leaving, the polling station. Voters will be allowed to take and use their own pen/pencil or a one-use pencil to avoid transmitting the virus.
The Scottish General Elections (Coronavirus) Bill allows for the election to be held over several consecutive days. Extending voting periods have been one way in which countries have helped provide social distancing during elections. This would be logistically problematic however. The expectation remains that polling will be held over a single day.
Election counts will also be different. Social distancing and regular sanitisation mean that counts will be slower and unlikely to happen overnight. Consequently, it will take longer for results to become known. There will be nothing irregular about this. Instead, it will be a necessary process to ensure that the results are reported safely and securely. Parties, candidates and the media need to be prepared and informed of this well in advance.
Running Scottish parliament elections is always logistically complex. The need for COVID-19 mitigations increase this complexity considerably. Yet, holding elections even under these difficult circumstances has been the international norm given the importance of democracy to societies. Many details remain to be worked out, such as, for instance, recruiting polling station workers, or organising polling places and count centres when space is at a premium because of the pandemic. COVID-19 mitigations will be costly. But electoral democracy is a vital part of how countries make decisions. With contingency legislation in place, and some experience of running pandemic by-elections, Scotland is looking well prepared for its crucially important 2021 parliamentary elections.
Alistair Clark is Reader in Politics at Newcastle University. He has written on both electoral integrity and Scottish electoral politics. He is currently working with Toby S. James (University of East Anglia) and Erik Asplund (International IDEA) on an ESRC- funded project examining the conduct of elections during the COVID-19 pandemic 'National Recovery and Resillience: Learning from Elections During a Pandemic'.
Image by mohammed_hassan on Pixabay