Local elections will go ahead in England in May – but voters will have to bring their own pencil to mark their ballot paper under new coronavirus safety rules.
The Cabinet Office confirmed that “Covid-secure” polls would be held as planned, despite fears that the pandemic would lead to them being postponed again.
Under new rules, voters will have to wear face coverings inside polling stations and will be asked to bring their own pen or pencil to mark their ballot.
And proxy voting rules will be changed so that people who have to self-isolate can request an emergency proxy vote up to 5pm on polling day.
The Cabinet Office said all nine priority cohorts – covering those aged 50 and over – are expected to have received coronavirus vaccines by May, meaning the Government can commit “with confidence” to the polls going ahead.
A bumper set of elections are due to be held across Great Britain on “Super Thursday” – May 6 – including a number of contests postponed from 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic.
In London, there will be elections for the mayor and assembly, which were originally due to take place last year.
And across the rest of England, voters will be choosing a mixture of councillors, local mayors, regional mayors and police commissioners.
Voters in Scotland and Wales will be choosing new parliaments – though a decision on whether these will go ahead will be made by their respective governments.
In Scotland, the deadline to apply for a postal vote in the May election is 5pm on Tuesday 6 April ⏰
This is earlier than the deadline in England and Wales
Want to vote by post? Download the form and find out where to send it: https://t.co/IzN3UFI35l
— Electoral Commission (@ElectoralCommUK) February 3, 2021
The scale of “Super Thursday” means that every voter in Great Britain will be able to take part in at least one type of poll, making it the biggest event of its kind outside a general election.
It will also be the first big electoral test for Sir Keir Starmer since he became Labour leader in April 2020, and for Prime Minister Boris Johnson since his general election victory in December 2019.
Cabinet Office minister Chloe Smith said: “We are publishing a detailed plan to deliver May’s elections in a safe and secure way.
“This is backed up by additional funding for councils, and practical changes to electoral laws to help both voters and candidates.
“Democracy should not be cancelled because of Covid. More than ever, local people need their say as we build back better, on issues ranging from local roads, to safer streets, to the level of council tax.
“As the Government rolls out the vaccine to the most vulnerable, we will be able to leave lockdown and open our country up safely again. We will work with political parties to ensure that these important elections are free and fair.”
An Electoral Commission spokesman said: “It is an important democratic principle that elections should proceed as scheduled whenever possible.
“The electoral community has been preparing for Covid-safe elections since last March, when the 2020 elections were postponed. Together, we have taken steps to help everyone involved take part safely and confidently.
“Safety measures, such as face coverings, hand sanitiser and social distancing, will be in place to make polling stations safe places to vote and to work, and we are sharing information with voters so they understand the voting options available to them.
“We are supporting administrators in their complex and important work to prepare for and deliver the polls, and we will continue to update our guidance for parties, campaigners and electoral administrators as needed in order to reflect the latest public health advice and any legislative changes.”
Cllr James Jamieson, chairman of the Local Government Association, welcomed the plan and said: “Local elections play a crucial role in our nation’s democracy.
“This year’s will see everyone in England having a ballot of some kind, with many places having multiple ballots taking place at once – this is unprecedented.
“Councils have been working hard to put preparations in place to deliver these with their usual efficiency.”
He said the estimated £92 million of Government grant funding to be given to local authorities for the elections would need to be “kept under review as the real-world costs and implications are calculated”.
Cllr Jamieson added: “We also want to explore with the Government how all candidates can best set out their case for election to voters as national restrictions are lifted.”