• Mark Nicholls

Running elections during COVID-19


With confirmation coming recently from the Cabinet Office Minister, Chloe Smith, that elections in England are going ahead in May 2021, and elections still due to take place in Scotland and Wales, we’ve been busy communicating with our clients about how we can help them prepare – particularly given the unprecedented challenges of COVID-19.


As a software provider, our focus is very much centred around how technology can be helpful in mitigating the news risks that administrators will be needing to manage at these forthcoming elections. There are of course numerous other issues that electoral teams are having to grapple with for the first time – such as the need to enforce social distancing in polling stations, maintaining safe working environments and PPE for staff and electors. However, the primary focus of this article will focus on the enabling benefits of technology in the safe, efficient and effective delivery of these elections.


Lessons from around the world


Although most elections in the UK have been postponed since the onset of COVID-19, with the exception of a handful of local government by-elections in Scotland, there are numerous international examples of elections having taken place during the pandemic. By looking at some of these experiences, administrators and policy makers can potentially learn some important lessons to inform their planning for May.


Firstly, turnout has been largely unaffected. In both Polish and US elections, turnout was at some of their highest levels. However, a trend across all countries has been a shift in the manner in which people are casting their ballots. In the US, for example, the majority of states extended their absentee voting arrangements to take into account COVID-19; some went even further opting for all-postal elections, whilst others implemented new online ways to register to vote and request absentee ballots. South Korea introduced early voting to stagger the flow of electors into polling venues, whilst France extended proxy voting arrangements. In all cases, these new voting options were taken up with enthusiasm by a significant numbers of voters.


The costs of running elections has also, unsurprisingly, increased. The degree to which this has increased, however, has depended very much on the scale of the changes introduced. In Canada, for example, where the focus was on the provision of PPE and hand sanitiser, costs rose by around £0.28 per elector. In the US, on the other hand, where their approach saw both technological and practical changes, costs rose overall by $2bn – around £5.75 per elector.


The challenges in the UK


Although far from exhaustive, some of the challenges that administrators in the UK will be facing in a matter of months will include:

  • Increases in absent vote applications

  • Increases in completed absent vote processing

  • Managing social distancing – at each part of the process, for example within the office, during staff training, at polling stations, during the nominations process and at the count

  • Staff cover and absence

  • Keeping public spaces safe

  • Reduced options for polling places

When looking at the above, we have identified four key success measures for electoral services teams heading into the elections:

  • Ensuring well-run elections

  • Keeping electors safe

  • Keeping staff safe

  • Keeping candidates and agents safe.

These broad categories also fit into the general framework of The Electoral Commission’s performance standards for Returning Officers. For each of these desired outcomes, we reviewed our ElectorCentre suite and mapped where we felt our products and services could contribute to their delivery. This is illustrated below and will be explored in more detail throughout this piece.

Ensuring well-run elections


Absent vote applications and postal ballot processing


One of the biggest areas of concern for administrators is the projected increase in postal vote volumes at the forthcoming elections. As we have already noted, experience from other nations indicates that postal voting volumes are likely to increase significantly. From our own discussions with clients many are planning on their postal vote volumes doubling in size as more and more people decide to vote from home rather than in-person on election day. This potential level of increase is also borne out in recent research by Dr Alistair Clark who, looking at the Scottish Parliament elections, estimates that postal vote proportions of the total electorate will increase from 18% (at the recent UKPGE in 2019) to 40% in May.


Increased postal vote volumes are a double-edged sword for administrators. Not only do they have to deal with processing the incoming applications, they then have to verify the returned postal vote packs from voters – so significantly increased volumes means a more sustained heavy drain on already limited resources over a longer period.


There are then the more real-world considerations around these workloads. Although many local authorities are already proactively trying to stagger the volume of incoming absent vote applications by encouraging people to apply early – through mail-outs and local publicity – experience shows that electors usually wait until the days before the deadlines, when political activity and news coverage is at its highest, to send in their application.


It is therefore reasonable to assume that the majority of applications will arrive from mid/late March (once poll cards have been received) right up until the deadline day and beyond. Electoral services teams are therefore likely to be faced with processing unprecedent volumes in a very short period of time. Combine this with the ongoing issues of restricted staff access to premises and social distancing measures in offices enforced by COVID-19 protocols and the challenges become even more pronounced. It is therefore likely that absent vote applications may become backlogged – meaning a greater risk of postal votes being received by electors right up to the days immediately prior to election day. The could have a knock-on effect on the amount of postal votes that are handed in at polling stations on the day. Furthermore, these issues will also apply to applications to register to vote. All in all, these combining factors alone have the potential to cause the perfect storm for administrators.


At Democracy Counts, we have therefore tackled these issues head-on. To assist Councils deal with these issues, we have expanded the functionality of our Citizen Portal, which can sit within a Council’s own webpage, to increase the amount of self-service operations that electors can undertake themselves. This means that by using our Citizen Portal, members of the public can now undertake a wide range of actions online, including:

  • submitting postal, proxy and emergency proxy applications

  • checking their registration status

  • registering to vote

  • updating household details

  • uploading documentary evidence

  • receiving ePoll Cards

  • finding out details about their local polling station

  • finding out more information about the candidates contesting elections in their area.

Not only will this reduce the levels of scanning, processing and administration associated with these activities for electoral teams, but, crucially, it will provide significantly more responsive and modern services for citizens in a manner in which they are increasingly coming to expect as standard.


Whilst the Citizen App is focussed on shifting applications online and encouraging elector self-service, we are conscious that election offices are still likely to receive large volumes of paper applications through the post. Whilst some of these volumes can be anticipated, for example in response to any large-scale mail-outs from their own offices, our clients have indicated that much of this mail is likely to be unsolicited – either arising from campaigns from local political parties or from electors downloading forms from the Electoral Commission or GDS websites.


We have therefore expanded our Scanning Bureau Service to allow administrators to redirect their incoming mail to our scanning offices for opening, sorting, scanning and uploading directly into the Electoral Management System thereby ensuring that local operations will continue to operate unaffected without staff having to change their remote working arrangements.


We have also seen an increase in demand for our Postal Vote Managed Service, where an experienced team from Democracy Counts is contracted to assist election teams deal with the postal votes once they have been returned by electors. This service not only means that local authorities can secure additional resource for one of the most labour-intensive activities of the electoral process but also that they do not need to incur additional capital expenditure for scanners, printers and laptops for what, potentially, could be the only election where postal vote volumes require this level of additional infrastructure.


In addition, our clients who use ElectorScan, our postal vote verification software, and are choosing to continue to keep their postal vote processing in-house, are not going to be penalised by incurring additional scanning licensing costs for the inevitable additional scanning stations that will be required. Indeed, we are unique in the UK electoral services market for offering an unlimited licensing model as standard. We estimate that this could save even the smallest Councils £1000s at this election alone.


Identifying and booking premises


Many Councils are already encountering difficulties in identifying and securing suitable venues for polling places and their counts. The reasons for this are manifold. Many schools, who traditionally have been widely used on election day, are reluctant to commit to agreeing to allow their premises to be used for voting purposes. This is partly due to the number of days already lost through school closures as a result of COVID-19 and the desire to avoid any additional lost days, concerns which are exacerbated by the prospect of the disruption caused by the necessary deep-cleans both before and after 6 May. For some of those that typically remained open on election day whilst voting took place, the transmission risks for staff and pupils whilst hundreds of electors cast their vote mean that this may no longer be viable. Furthermore, many of the larger premises within a local authority, which may have served as count venues in recent years, have now been reserved for the forthcoming months as vaccination centres.


Added to this limited pool of potential premises is the need to enforce social distancing in polling stations, with many temporary or smaller venues no longer large enough to accommodate the necessary COVID-safe measures.


To help administrators, we have recently introduced online premise booking functionality within our Elector8 software that allows administrators to manage their polling station scoping, assessment and booking activities online. In addition, we are finalising our polling station flow simulator software that will allow Councils to simulate the impact of social distancing requirements within individual polling stations based upon expected turnout as well as the peaks and troughs of elector flow through a polling station throughout the course of the day. The primary purpose of this tool is to provide an assessment of how well suited the polling station is for the new arrangements, as well as providing an estimate to the maximum likely queuing times that electors may experience during high-traffic periods, meaning that they can make adjustments as necessary after completing the simulator modelling. After all, anyone involved with the elections in 2010 will remember the political fall-out from the long queues experienced at the close of polls.


Keeping electors safe


Policy makers, regulatory bodies and administrators have been investing significant amounts of time considering how to make in-person voting as safe as possible for electors. Whilst the focus, understandably, has been largely on the provision of PPE, hand sanitiser and sufficient ventilation within buildings, our approach has centred on how technology can assist with making polling places a safer environment.


As well our the development of our polling station flow simulator, we have increased the functionality within our tablet-based polling station software, Authentic8, to introduce new ways in which to manage waiting times within polling places.


Authentic8 includes, for example, a COVID-19 set-up safety checklist that ensures all polling stations are set up in accordance with the Council’s requirements. This information is available, in real-time, to election offices and Polling Station Inspectors so that they can be assured that safety protocols are being followed without in-person checks being required. As well as speeding up the processing of electors, Authentic8 also allows clerical errors and emergency proxy appointments to be dealt with more effectively than traditional methods by making this information available to Presiding Officers as soon as the change is actioned and approved by the election team – reducing significantly the time that affected electors will need to wait to have the changes available at the polling station. We are also building in integration with our Citizen Portal to enable electors to see real-time information as to how busy their polling station is at that precise time, thereby allowing them to turn up to vote during quieter, less busy periods – benefitting both the individual, other electors and those working at the venue.


In order to ensure that safety measures are fully understood even before staff begin setting up polling stations, our online training tool, Educ8, has been updated with a COVID-19 safety course for poll workers.


Keeping staff safe


Elections are run by experts and the successful delivery of any electoral events usually depends upon a handful of key election staff. A concern for many Returning Officers is, therefore, around guaranteeing the safety, well-being and availability of their core team in the weeks and months prior to election day. A scenario where just one or two key election staff become ill, have to self-isolate or become otherwise unavailable through having to care for others is, without doubt, one of the biggest risks that Councils are facing.


Consequently, reducing in-person contacts for election teams is going to be essential. Face-to-face training of staff is not an option for these elections. Staff training, however, is not simply required for those working in polling stations – it also extends to those working at postal vote openings and at the count. We have therefore extended the content within Educ8 to include training modules for these activities too – the only commercial solution that offers this comprehensive coverage.


Another perennial challenge that administrators face, that of recruiting and appointing suitable staff to work across the various election activities, will also see additional complexities this year. It is likely that fewer staff will want to work at the elections because of the perceived COVID-19 risks. Moreover, staff turnover rates will, in all likelihood, be higher than ever before as people have to drop out due to illness or through the need to self-isolate. To complicate matters further, many of these changes will occur in the days immediately prior to election day – leaving officers hurrying to appoint and train last-minute replacements.


Within our EMS, Elector8, we have a fully-functional staff portal that allows election teams to appoint staff, replacements and monitor their training more effectively and efficiently than ever before. Importantly, by shifting the process online, the level of physical contact associated with this work is significantly reduced too.


Elector8 also includes a comprehensive count venue planning tool that allows seating plans to be circulated to staff well in advance of the count, facilitating the efficient flow of staff to their allocated count tables whilst minimising any delays upon their arrival.


Keeping candidates and agents safe


Finally, vibrant democracies and elections do not properly function without the vital role played by candidates, agents and political parties. Keeping this group safe is, as a result, another consideration that must be factored into any election planning by election teams and political parties alike.


As a result of a year of postponed elections, May 2021 is going to see a large number of contests taking place across the country. Councils will therefore be dealing with high volumes of candidate nominations, with some Councils estimating that they could receive up to 2,000 of these across all their elections. Herein lies another challenge for election teams – how to receive, check and validate these nomination papers whilst minimising in-person contacts in both duration and volume.


Elector8 is the only electoral management system that includes online functionality to receive draft nomination papers for checking in advance of submission – meaning that errors and queries can be rectified without the need for in-person appointments with the result that the formal lodging of nominations become more straight-forward and contact time is reduced significantly. Elector8 also has a nomination appointment booking portal which allows candidates and agents to select an available time that suits them best to hand in their papers – again giving election teams greater control over the flow of people into their offices.


The last major logistical event for administrators to arrange is the count itself. Concerns have already been raised in various forums about balancing safety concerns with the need for a transparent count process. With Elector8’s count management functionality, which supports the use of barcoded name badges or wristbands, attendance levels can be monitored in real-time so that numbers in the count venue do not exceed the maximum numbers allowed under new safety rules.


In addition, our ElectorCount Results module allows information about the progress of the count to be posted in real-time online, meaning that candidates and agents – particularly those in higher-risk categories – have the option of following the count from the safety of their own homes. This also reduces the amount of people attending in-person too. Integration with the data from Authentic8 further streamlines the data input process since polling station data can be exported and published as soon as it is verified. Results can also be published immediately online and the extensive range of graphical display options ensures that it can be incorporated into the standard look and feel of any corporate local authority website.


In conclusion


It is not an understatement that local authorities are facing an unprecedented number of challenges in the lead up to May’s elections. However, we do firmly believe that technology offers some of the solutions to these issues and have been working hard, both internally and with clients, to ensure these can be put in these in place in good time before the poll.


In addition, it is important to highlight that there are some valuable resources from the likes of the Electoral Commission and Association of Electoral Administrators available to assist local authorities with their wider election planning.


Nevertheless, experience from other countries does indicate that the elections will be like no other ever delivered on this scale in the UK. I would therefore urge electors, politicians, those funding elections and other interested parties to always bear this in mind. Electoral administrators are some of the most dynamic, hard-working and dedicated public officials in the country – as they head into the May elections, they deserve nothing but our support, co-operation and admiration.




Mark Nicholls is a former electoral administrator who has also worked in election policy for central government and at The Electoral Commission. All opinions expressed in this blog are his own. Should you wish to contact him to discuss any matter in more detail, you can email him at marknicholls@democracycounts.co.uk.