Wales

General election: Can Wales' councils handle a December poll?

people with umbrellas entering polling station Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Bad weather might just be the start of the problem for councils organising a winter election

It may be the "most wonderful time" of the year - but not necessarily for staging an election.

Wales' councils are facing up to the first December general election for a century.

They are responsible for providing polling stations and organising counts throughout their areas.

But with the winter weather and the build up to Christmas in full swing, how hard will it be for local authorities to squeeze in an election?

A "rare" December poll presents them with many challenges.

Ensuring voters are not affected by "weather, university timetables or even polling station changes due to nativity plays" must be a priority, said the Electoral Reform Society Cymru.

Short notice

In recent years, the dates of many major elections - including those for local councils, the Welsh Assembly and Europe - have been known well in advance.

But this is the second time in three years that a Westminster election has taken place at relatively short notice.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The Sport Wales National Centre, where the Cardiff count is normally held, is unavailable due to netball and gymnastics events

Councils have been aware of the likelihood of a snap election, but not knowing the date until relatively short notice can lead to practical problems.

Venues normally used as polling stations or counting centres may be booked and contracts have to be honoured.

At the last general election in 2017, all Cardiff constituencies were counted at one centre, the Sport Wales National Centre at Sophia Gardens.

But this venue cannot be used on 12 December because of a netball event that day, immediately followed by and a three-day gymnastics competition.

The council has yet to confirm its alternative venue.

Torfaen council has had to move its count venue because of a Christmas party, from Pontypool Active Living Centre to Cwmbran Stadium.

It added that it was "already proving harder to secure" many of its usual venues due to luncheons and Christmas events.

Councils also face issues over staffing given many have already booked leave, while sickness rates rise in the winter.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Turnout in the last December election in 1923 was dramatically down in some parts of Wales

Weather

A cause of potentially major disruption to a winter poll is the weather.

This month has already seen widespread flooding across Wales, particularly in Monmouth, while many parts of Wales were under snow in December 2017 and 2018 when people were advised not to travel.

For rural areas, this could pose real problems simply getting polling stations open while also making the journey for people to cast their vote difficult.

Image caption Many roads were treacherous in December 2017 due to heavy snow

Ensuring there are no problems delivering ballot boxes to counts will clearly have to be a priority.

A Powys council spokesman said: "The weather could be a real issue for rural areas such as ours.

"December in 2017 saw significant snow falls across the county which would have made getting election paraphernalia to polling stations in very rural locations a real issue. Plus there would have been a safety issue for people going out to vote."

The last time there was a December general election - in 1923 - some parts of Wales saw significant falls in turnout compared with the previous year, including Pembrokeshire (-33.7%), Denbighshire (-13%) and Flintshire (-10%).

So council's are also likely to face the strain of making sure gritters not only prioritise main roads but spray on smaller side streets and car parks of polling venues, as well as keeping pavements clear.

Heating venues will also bring an extra expense, especially given the guidance to councils is for the doors to be left open at polling stations - in December.

If there was disruption, it would simply mean that a declaration would have to be delayed because it cannot be postponed.

But if the election result is on a knife-edge, late declarations from rural seats could prove unusually significant.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Councils will need large gritting teams to make sure the smaller roads and pavements are clear

Schools

Many councils still use primary schools as polling places,

Swansea and Cardiff councils have reported no major issues with access to schools, though Cardiff expects some private venues, such as leisure centres or halls, to be unavailable.

A council spokesman said: "We aren't anticipating too many difficulties, however organising elections at short notice in winter conditions is always a challenge.

"We are in the process of booking polling stations. Schools will be available but in some instances private venues may already be booked out. If that's the case we will secure other venues."

If a primary school is used for polling, it simply means the children get an extra day off school.

But that could see many nativity plays cancelled or moved in small communities, such as Abermule, near Newtown, Powys, where the primary school and community centre share the same facilities

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Will Christmas be cancelled at some primary schools?

Postal ballots

Royal Mail is already facing its first national postal strike in a decade after staff voted overwhelmingly for action.

The dispute between workers and the firm over job security, and terms and conditions of employment could stretch close to Christmas causing disruption.

Added to that, Royal Mail could be inundated with election mail as well.

It said it still hopes to avoid industrial action. Managing director Shane O'Riordain added: "Royal Mail very much understands the importance of ensuring that election mail reaches voters in a timely fashion. We have processes in place to minimise any disruption to our customers."

Possible solution

The Electoral Reform Society believes the problems of a December election could be eased by spreading voting over the course of two days.

Director Jess Blair said: "It's vital that plans are in place and voters properly informed about their options for voting, where to go and what to do on polling day.

"Given the difficulties some authorities are having in making arrangements for the [election] day, thought should be given in the future to an election taking place over the course of a weekend, as popular across Europe."

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