How Central Lancashire's polling stations will be made Covid-safe - and what the alternatives are to voting in person
Lancashire residents are being reassured that it will be safe for them to vote in person at the forthcoming local elections - and reminded that they nevertheless have other options if they would rather not visit a polling station during the pandemic.
In parts of the county, there will be as many as four polls taking place on 6th May - with Lancashire-wide elections for the county council and the police and crime commissioner, along with district authority votes - including in Preston and Chorley, where the latter will elect an entirely new council following boundary changes. Parish council elections will also be held in many areas.
There are no whole-council elections for South Ribble Borough Council this year, although by-elections will be held in the wards of Longton and Hutton West and St. Ambrose.
Apart from the County Hall poll, most of the contests were postponed from last year, when the government cancelled them over safety concerns about people heading out to vote during the first Covid wave.
Twelve months on, and the practical considerations of operating polling stations during a pandemic are now having to be confronted by Lancashire’s local authorities.
However, Lancashire County Council’s democratic and member services manager, Josh Mynott, says that plans are in place to ensure voting is Covid-safe - relying on many of the modifications that have come to dominate life over the last year.
For voters themselves, that means remembering two simple things - bringing a face covering and something to write with in order to put the cross in the box of their choice. But failing to do so will not block them from casting their ballot.
“People will be asked to wear a mask, but if someone forgets and turns up without one, there will be masks available. Pens and pencils will also be provided [for anybody who doesn’t have one] - and they will be properly disinfected in between each use,” Josh explained.
“There will be protective screens up and stickers and signage all over the floor, as well as extra staff on hand to manage people coming in and out. So people might be asked to queue outside a polling station if there are already two or three people inside to make sure everybody can keep nice and safe.
“Nobody needs to worry - it will be everything that we’re used to seeing now in shops and other places, so we are confident that people can come and cast their vote in complete safety.”
Paul Bond, head of legal and democratic services, added: “There’ll be sanitiser at the entrance and the exit so people can use that for their hands.
“The polling stations will be rigorously cleaned and they’ll be ventilated where we can.”
Social distancing requirements mean that a small number of the around 1,000 polling station locations across the county have had to be changed, because they were too small to be made Covid secure.
As a result, residents are being reminded to check their polling card for details of where they should attend - and not just presume it will be where they have always voted in the past. They must also ensure that they are on the electoral roll and registered to vote by the deadline of 11.59pm next Monday, 19th April.
In spite of the precautions - which include £60,000 being spent on personal protective equipment for staff manning the polling stations - Paul acknowledges that there will be some people who, “quite understandably might have some concerns about voting in the traditional way”.
As is usually the case, residents have the chance to cast their vote by post - with the deadline to apply for that option being 5pm on Tuesday 20th April, by which time an application form must have been received by their local electoral registration office.
“It’s a five-minute process to get a postal vote - it’s not complicated or a lot of hard work,” Josh said.
“And when you think - that’s five minutes of your time now to have your say on what’s going to happen for the next four years, so it’s really important.”
Voters can also nominate a proxy to nominate someone else to vote in person on their behalf. Unusually, they can exercise that right up until 5pm on the day of the election itself after the government extended the normal timeframe so that anybody who learns in the run-up to polling day that they have to self-isolate can still take part.
However, Lancashire residents are being urged to use that additional time only if necessary - and otherwise to register for a proxy vote by 5pm on Tuesday 27th April.
Josh says that it is difficult to predict how - or whether - turnout will be affected by the pandemic, but that a “belt and braces” approach has been taken to ensure that the county’s polling stations are prepared whatever the demand to take part in the democratic process.
“We’d really encourage them to make sure their voice is heard one way or the other,” he added.
19th April, 11.59 pm - deadline to register to vote
20th April, 5pm - deadline to apply for a postal vote
27th April, 5pm - deadline to apply for a proxy vote*
6th May, 7am-10pm - polling stations open for election day
*proxy vote applications accepted until 5pm 6th May for those needing to self-isolate
The forms for electoral registration and post and proxy votes can be found via links from here
WHO CAN I VOTE FOR?
The full lists of candidates for each of the main elections being held on 6th May: