Covid in Wales: Early voting proposed if Senedd election delayed

By David Deans
BBC News

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Could Senedd elections take place on a different day to PCC elections?

Voting in the Senedd elections could take place over two days or longer if the polls are delayed from 6 May.

There are no plans to delay the election, but Senedd members are discussing a new law to allow a postponement of up to six months.

The Welsh Government has now amended it to allow for early voting, which is used in the US and elsewhere.

But the UK government says early voting would be unnecessary and would require additional resources.

Welsh ministers say the UK government's view and coinciding elections for police and crime commissioners means it would be "impossible" to hold early voting on the original election date.

Instead, the Welsh Government has amended the emergency legislation on an election delay, allowing it to propose extra polling days if an election is delayed and the commissioner elections are not held at the same time.

Senedd members approved the change on Tuesday, ahead of a vote on the full legislation on Wednesday.

Image caption,
The 2021 election will decide who will sit in the Welsh Parliament for the next term

Welsh ministers say the election should take place on 6 May, but argue the legislation is needed if it is not safe to hold the election at that time, because of Covid.

But the UK government has not suggested that its own elections set for the date would be moved, and last week confirmed the PCC polls will go ahead as planned.

It potentially means the Senedd election could be delayed but the PCC elections would continue to be held on the same day.

Under the amended law, extra days for voting would need to be held in the seven days ahead of the new election date.

A spokesman for the Welsh Government said: "We strongly support measures to make voting easier, particularly given the circumstances caused by the pandemic and would have favoured putting in place early voting - as happens in many countries across the world - for the Senedd election on 6 May.

"This proved impossible, given the fact that on current plans, the Senedd election and the PCC elections will take place on the same day and the UK government - which is responsible for the PCC elections - opposes early voting.

"The amendment would enable Welsh voters to benefit from the opportunity to cast their ballot on more than one day if the election were to be postponed and was not held concurrently with the PCC elections."

The UK government said it had confirmed that the PCC elections in Wales will go ahead on 6 May.

Its delivery plan for the elections said early voting was "unnecessary given voters can already vote early by post, and the additional resources required to staff early polling stations would make the elections harder to deliver given Covid-19 staffing pressures".

"Local authorities are able to contact all clinically extremely vulnerable people in their areas to make them aware of the options to use a proxy or postal vote and they will be supported in their efforts by targeted communications from the Electoral Commission."

Early voting amendment passed

Senedd members voted the amendment into the election bill on Tuesday afternoon - 37 for, 13 against, with 1 abstention - during a series of votes on proposed changes to the bill.

Julie James, presenting the amendment, said early voting would "encourage more voters to participate, but also make the election safer by spreading footfall from one day to several".

The Welsh Conservatives voted against the idea - Conservative Senedd member Mark Isherwood said an election held over multiple days "raises security concerns over the integrity of the election", including over how ballot boxes would be secured.

Plaid Cymru's Rhun ap Iorwerth said early voting could be a way of enabling people to cast their vote during the pandemic.

Plaid supported the amendment, but Mr ap Iorwerth said there was a "lot of work to be done" on on how it would be delivered.

Conservatives say they will abstain on the bill after their amendments were rejected.

The Tories said the election should only be postponed if Wales is in alert level 4 - the most serious level of coronavirus restrictions.

But the proposal was voted down, as was an attempt to stop the election being delayed beyond 9 September.

Final votes on the legislation will be held on Wednesday, which would also enable a delay to the dissolution of the Welsh Parliament - the date at which the institution formally breaks up.

Welsh Conservative Senedd leader Andrew RT Davies, said: "Barring any dramatic change in circumstances, I have every confidence that election officials across Wales will also be able to carry out a safe and secure Senedd election, learning from the vast number of elections that have taken place around the globe during the pandemic.

"The Welsh Labour Government should now focus all energy on ensuring the people of Wales are able to have their say on the future of our country on 6 May."

A Plaid Cymru spokeswoman said "urgent clarity" was needed on what is "legally permitted in terms of campaigning activity against each alert level".

She also called for the publication of "pre-dissolution and dissolution period guidance with the requirement for any postponement proposal to be initiated by the first minister by 7 April at the latest".