To review the update on the Elections Planning process for the elections that are due to be held in May 2021.
The report provided an update to the May 2021 elections. The postponed 2020 elections and those due on 6 May 2021 were being planned by the Elections Planning Group at monthly meetings. Despite uncertainty if the May 2021 elections would be going ahead because of the Covid crisis, the Returning Officer, G Blakemore, was still planning on the assumption the elections would happen. The order of counts had been confirmed as Essex County Council on Thursday 6 May followed by the Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner on 7 May. Local elections would be counted on 8 May. Staff resourcing for the elections had been positive. Some of the polling stations might not be available in May. A hangar at North Weald airfield had been booked for the counts, which would be large enough to accommodate social distancing. A detailed project plan and risk assessment in line with LGA guidance were being regularly updated. It was likely there would be an increase in the number of postal votes this year and various measures would need to be in place, such as social distancing at polling stations.
Councillor S Murray was surprised by the order of the count as local elections usually had the highest number of ballots but was going to be counted last. He advised that Murray Hall in Borders Lane (Loughton) was a Covid vaccination centre and was unlikely to be available in May as a polling station venue. The Service Director Strategy, Delivery and Performance, L Wade, acknowledged that Electoral Services were aware of this and looking into the possibility of using a local school.
Councillor D Wixley asked if an increase in postal votes was being anticipated, would Royal Mail give assurances that election post would be given priority? Its delivery services were being disrupted by the Covid crisis and might still be severe in May. Also, were the postal vote envelopes marked to stand out? The Service Director Strategy, Delivery and Performance replied that this was a national concern that would be closely monitored and led by Central Government discussions.
Councillor J H Whitehouse remarked that her car insurance did not cover liability on an airfield which might apply to many others. If there was an accident, would the Council cover the cost? The Service Director Strategy, Delivery and Performance replied that she was not aware of this but would investigate. Councillor M Sartin said many cars were driven to the airfield for North Weald market.
Councillor D Dorrell observed that a massive increase in postal votes was probable. As postal votes had previously been low, were arrangements being put in place to take into account observation of the postal vote opening by councillors to ensure transparency if the postal vote percentage shifted? The Service Director Strategy, Delivery and Performance advised the Council would need sufficient staff for the postal vote sessions and put in place mitigation measures on risk assessment issues. The Returning Officer advised the Council would definitely be looking at capacity, the potential shifting percentage of postal votes and transparency at the postal vote counts.
Councillor S Rackham asked how the Council would be monitoring postal vote fraud and could postal votes be brought into a polling station on the day? The Service Director Strategy, Delivery and Performance replied that the Council was following all relevant guidance to mitigate the fraud aspect, and this was not an issue unique to this District. Postal votes could be brought into a polling station.
Councillor J Lea wanted reassurance that if there was a problem that the electorate would be aware of how to get postal votes into the Council in plenty of time. The Service Director Strategy, Delivery and Performance replied that this was handled in conjunction with the election project plan and communications plan.
(1) That the Committee reviewed the update of the Elections Planning process for the elections to be held in May 2021.