European Elections in the UK – just another poll?

Our Chair has blogged about preparations for the European Parliamentary elections on 23 May. He outlines preparations in place, and the risks associated with cancelling elections once preparations have begun. He also writes about the need for there to be respectful debate.

Like Returning Officers and political parties around the country, the Electoral Commission is now busy preparing for European Parliamentary elections on Thursday 23 May.

For those involved in running the elections the main issues are the usual practical ones, complicated in this case by the late notice, and the short gap between this poll and local elections on 2 May: can I book polling stations at such a late stage, and find staff to run them? Across the UK that means about 50,000 polling stations and two hundred thousand staff. Can local printers do the necessary in time, including sourcing the paper, to produce ballots and postal votes? That means literally millions of pieces of paper. Can I send out postal vote papers quickly enough to allow them to be returned before polling day, particularly for those overseas? How do I ensure that EU citizens in my constituency are properly able to choose where they vote?

At the Commission, we have had contingency plans in place for some time, on the basis that these elections were legally required until we actually left the EU. Our guidance for elections staff, parties and other campaigners was ready to go. We are running our usual pre-poll campaign to encourage anyone not already registered to vote to do so by the deadline of 7 May.

So far, so normal. But this is of course far from a normal situation. The government has said it does not want these elections to happen. If the Brexit withdrawal agreement is agreed by Parliament by 22 May, they say the elections could be cancelled, even at the eleventh hour.

I have no more idea than anyone else how likely this is. But in any case the election process must go full speed ahead in the meantime, to make sure everything is ready to allow people to express their right to vote.

This is an unprecedented level of uncertainty in a mature democracy. Voters can be forgiven for being confused. Even if the elections go ahead as currently planned, no-one can tell whether those elected will take their seats or, if so, for how long.

There are bound to be questions about the impact on voters, now and in future, when a significant electoral process is in such doubt, especially when its value is being openly questioned by the Government itself. This follows already serious concerns about public confidence in our current political processes that have been highlighted by the Hansard Society.

We will need to come back to these issues once the elections are behind us, one way or another. Meanwhile, it is clear that emotions surrounding these elections may run high, on both sides of the Brexit divide. There is therefore a huge responsibility on all concerned – government, parties, campaigners and media alike – to make sure that these elections are conducted in a properly democratic way. That means mutually respectful electoral debate, however robust the arguments, and a determination on all sides to avoid any kind of provocation or incitement to undemocratic methods.

We will also of course be regulating the campaigns to ensure that all concerned are playing by the financial rules, on both donations and spending. And we will be working hard to ensure, along with bodies such as the Information Commissioner’s Office, that the unprecedented opportunities to reach voters through digital means are not being abused.

Transparency is the key. Voters must be able to make up their minds freely, and in full knowledge of who is targeting them and how, without their personal data being misused.

The European elections are a difficult test for everyone at a challenging political time for our country. It is vital that our democratic institutions and traditions come through intact.

Sir John Holmes, Chairman, Electoral Commission

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